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beer reviews Beer styles

In search of ESB – bitter and fruity

The latest coronavirus restrictions now prevent pubs from selling takeaway alcohol, subject to clarifications or U-turns like those that came along under pressure from lobbyists last time, so that looks like an end to our Drapers Arms takeaways for the foreseeable. But at least our final pint was a fantastic ESB.

Severn Brewing Extra Special Bitter just straight-up delighted us: it was dark, fruity and, above all, bitter.

Discussing it, we decided that often when we have a beer describing itself as ESB, it just isn’t bitter enough and it ends up tasting like mild or porter.

Just based on the name, ESB really should be a turbo-charged version of bitter, with some of the dials turned up. In practice, we suppose that means the hopping has to go up to balance the increase in maltiness.

Of course, having had that conversation we looked up our notes from last time we tried Severn’s take – a helpful side effect of maintaining a record of our favourite beers for Patreon round-ups – and found that on that occasion, we did describe it as like a sweet, fruity best mild.

We enjoyed it, but definitely noticed an absence of bitterness.

And, in fact, there were some even earlier notes, from right at the start of 2020, which can probably be summarised as “How DARE they bestow upon this merely adequate brown soup the mighty name of ESB!?”

This made us wonder if freshness might be a factor – that if the beer is a few days or weeks older, it might have dried out and matured.

We thought about the differences in Fullers’ ESB, the template for them all, and perhaps we’ve observed the same thing. Sometimes there’s noticeably more depth of flavour and a richer mouthfeel and, at its worst, it can taste distinctly muddy.

Is ESB fundamentally more of a diva than ordinary bitter? Or maybe the fact that it’s strong (Severn’s is 5.2%) means it tends to hang around a little longer and is more likely to change and evolve at point of sale? 

If only we could test this theory out in some pubs across the country over the next couple of months. We’d be well up for seeing out winter with a focus on this barely-a-style.

In fact, we can still do that: if anyone has got any good suggestions for ESBs that we can order online, do please let us know.

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beer reviews

Our Golden Pints for 2020

You know how Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the highest grossing movies of 2020? Our Golden Pints this year is going to be a bit like that.

We’d usually have got about a bit – maybe a trip to Sheffield or Manchester, a day or two out in Cardiff, perhaps a couple of weekends in towns or cities completely new to us.

This year, however, the extent of our exploring has been:

  • Stockport in January
  • Stroud in February
  • A couple of trips to London in the summer
  • Broadstairs in September

Having been reluctant to use public transport, we’ve barely even been able to explore Bristol and only managed 12 entries in #EveryPubInBristol.

What we did do was drink a fair bit of beer, albeit mostly on the sofa or in the weird little mock pub we constructed in our front room, and we’ve managed to muster a few opinions. It made life bearable but… It’s not the same, is it?

On top of all that, being critical of any business in the midst of this catastrophe feels like bad behaviour. Everything is ten times harder than usual but, between supply problems, the challenges of delivery and complicated, ever-changing restrictions, it’s no wonder if things have wobbled.

Anyway, let’s get down to business.

Best Bristol pub

It’s still the Drapers Arms, even though we haven’t sat in to drink since March.

Thanks to the takeaway offer, we still manage to visit twice a week, and there were points when a two-minute chat with Zee, Vince, Garvan or another regular in the distanced queue felt like a life-saving social interaction.

We’re moving house soon, to another part of Bristol, and have already scoped out our route for popping back for pints at least once or twice each month.

Best pub beyond Bristol

It only really feels fair to judge pubs we visited under pre-lockdown conditions so, for that reason, we’re giving this award to the Prince Albert in Stroud.

We only visited four pubs in Stroud and it felt as if there were plenty more to see but when we go back, we’ll definitely hike up the hill for a return visit to this one.

It wears its left-wing heart on its sleeve (posters for radical walking groups and all that) but was also a cosy, pubby pub and, perhaps because of the ruddy great hill that keeps outsiders away, had a village feel, too. Like the Plough in Easton transplanted to the Cotswolds.

Best cask beer

When we drank Karst by Cheddar Ales back in early March we thought, oy oy, and noted it as a contender for Beer of the Year. We were similarly impressed when we had it again in October.

It’s a rye beer, and whereas a lot of these tend towards the harsh or medicinal, this is perfectly put together. Almost treacly but not overly sweet, it manages to balance both liquorice and peach notes while still tasting like a well-rounded, beery beer.

Best bottled beer (that isn’t Westmalle Tripel)

Keeping things Belgian, as most years, the splendid bottle of Pannepot Special Reserve that we had in early November was an overall highlight of the year.

We’ve had a rollercoaster ride with de Struise beers over the years being bowled over on first encounter but having found them muddy on more recent encounters. The Special Reserve is an absolute triumph though.

It smells like Harvey’s Imperial Stout – oaky and ancient. It tastes of treacle, wine and rum and raisin ice cream. Will subsequent bottles taste the same? Who knows. But that one bottle, at that one moment – magic.

Best lockdown beers

Here’s a new category to recognise the reliable and reliably uplifting beers that we ended up ordering on multiple occasions.

It’s fair to say that Westmalle Tripel found its way into our kitchen more frequently even than usual.

Slightly closer to home (actually, it isn’t, it’s about 20 miles further away, according to Google) we greatly enjoyed ordering mini-kegs of Fyne Ales Jarl. Not only is it a great beer but it was also impeccably packaged, each home-drawn pint taking us back to happy sessions in Glasgow.

Best brewery

Everything we’ve had from them has been very good and some have been outstanding. They’ve got a great range of styles and everything is well executed. It’s Cheddar Ales.

Best beer blogger

First, we want to express our respect for anyone who’s managed to write anything beer-related this year. Even with two of us and half an archive in our spare room, we struggled at times to generate the energy to produce anything whatsoever. So if you did write something, well done you. Give yourself a pat on the back.

We normally allocate this award by looking at the people we’ve linked to the most in our weekly roundups. However, this misses out someone who we don’t link to very much because his content is almost entirely beer reviews, not news or commentary – yes, it’s the ever-punning Beer Nut. We’ve been particularly grateful for the constant stream of business-as-usual, non-plague-related content this year.

Best beer book

There have been some great books published this year but, for sheer ambition and importance, it has to be The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing by Lars Marius Garshol. You can read our full review here.

Best beer publication

We wanted to underline how impressed we’ve been by Pellicle this year. Editors Matt Curtis and Jonny Hamilton have made such an obvious effort to make room for new voices, commission pieces that come at the subject from new angles and, crucially, to pay people for their work. The fact that something from Pellicle has appeared in our weekly round-up most weeks speaks for itself. We’re supporting them via Patreon; you might consider doing the same.

Now round-up and reflection season has begun, you can expect to see our regular summaries of our own best writing, our favourite bits by others and maybe something highlighting the best Tweets of the year, if we find time.

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beer reviews bottled beer

An evening with Elusive: clean, likeable beers

When it became apparent that another month or two of compulsory evenings in was on the cards, we went mad and ordered mixed cases from a handful of breweries on the advice of our Patreon subscribers.

One of the boxes we ended up with was from Elusive, founded by award-winning home-brewer Andy Parker in Berkshire in 2016.

This gave us six beers to taste, which we worked our way through in approximate order of strength, low to high.

We’ve had Plan-B a few times before and always enjoyed it. It’s a Belgian-inspired pale ale at 4.2% and the characterful, spicy, spiky yeast adds a welcome layer of complexity. It has the body and depth of a much stronger beer, with banana and citrus balanced by snappy bitterness. Why aren’t more breweries doing this? It’s £3.75 for a 440ml can.

Memphis Mephisto is a pale ale with Mosaic hops and probably all the review you need is Ray’s gut reaction on first sip: “Oh, wow, that’s absolutely brilliant.” At 4%, it’s clear, clean and fruity – hefty without being sickly, bitter enough to earn its sugars. Even Jess, who can’t really being doing with Mosaic, agreed that it was a cut above. This was also £3.75 for 440ml.

Overdrive American pale ale at 5.5% and Level-Up American red at 5% are clearly siblings. Both resembled drinkable strawberry jam overlaid with a fairly intense grassy, herbal hop character. We suspect we’d have enjoyed them more if we’d left them to mellow for six months but, as it is, they got drunk without complaint. We think these were both £3 for 330ml, bottled.

The final round included Lord Nelson, a 6.8% saison originally brewed in collaboration with Weird Beard, and Spellbinder coffee porter, at 6%. These were also £3 each.

The former inspired more oohing and aahing – it’s a really exciting beer. Think Dupont (classical) but with a sharp melon-grape-gooseberry note from New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops. Each sip reminded us of something different: Hopfenweisse? Tokaj? Japanese gummy sweets? We wonder how it might have fared in our saison contest of a few years back.

Finally, Spellbinder was a very decent porter that, frankly, probably would have been more to our taste without the coffee. Adding coffee to beer is a distinctly homebrew habit – it seems as if it’ll be fun, doesn’t it, so why not? – but generally ends up reminding us of the cold dregs from an hour-old cup of instant. This was good, though, and, again, got drunk without grumbling.

If you like well made beers with distinct flavours in styles other than hazy yellow IPA, give Elusive’s mix-and-match offer a go. At worst, the beer will be properly made and decent tasting; and at best, it’ll make you swoon.

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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.