In 1987, a pub-owning entrepreneur looked at British brewing and decided it wasn’t working.
Stylishly packaged ranges of bottled beers trumpeting their purity and quality are easy to find these days. Back in 1987, though, bottled beer meant, in most cases, brown or light ale gathering dust on shelves behind the bar in pubs, with labels that appeared to have been designed before World War II. If you wanted to know their ingredients, or their alcoholic strength, tough luck, because the breweries didn’t want to tell you.
A cult beer from Cornwall would play a major role in changing that scene.
We also found something extremely appealing about the idea of an off-the-shelf educational tasting session. Like a chemistry set for grown-ups, it encourages the setting aside of a couple of hours, the clearing of a tabletop, and the taking of notes. This is not drinking, but thinking. With drink.
Beer #1: fermented with Pilsen lager yeast
This is a yeast we know reasonably well from our own home brewing experiments but we struggled, at first, to discern its influence in this case. That might be because we have been conditioned to expect that yeast character in weaker, paler beers, and needed to overcome our programming.
Eventually, we did begin to pick out the familiar sulphurous note; something lemony; and then a faint reminder of Parma Violets.
Though they didn’t deliver a huge aroma, we did find that the use of decent amounts of American hops clashed with the yeast, knocking it out of focus.
What we learned: Pilsner Yeast does not seem, as they say, to allow citrusy hops ‘to sing’.
Beer #2: Bavarian weizen yeast
On the odd occasion we have run tasting sessions, German wheat beer has been our go-to to demonstrate the impact of yeast. Its famous banana-clove-bubblegum character is easy to spot and striking. And that is what we expected here.
In fact, we found a grainy, slightly smoky character, with a whack of harsh hoochy alcohol. It wasn’t very pleasant, frankly, and probably wouldn’t help a would-be beer geek to spot this yeast in action in another beer.
What we learned: wheat beer yeast is not much at home in a strong pale ale; and it needs handling properly to make with the bananas.
Beer #3: American ale yeast
This is where we expected Brewdog to shine, and for a brief break from the educational misery. It smelled fantastic, a big leafy fug of Stoned Love rising above the glass.
It tasted, unfortunately, less exciting — plasticky and gritty, like their big Hardcore IPA let down with water.
Three beers in, we were starting to notice a common off-flavour, and wondered if there was a fundamental problem with the base beer.
What we learned: were there actually more hops in this beer than in the others? If not, then it’s easy to see why yeasts like this one are popular with hophead brewers seeking to maximise their impact.
Beer #4: Belgian Trappist yeast
Cor! Though the common dodgy flavour is still just about evident, this was by far the best beer as beer. The yeast is so strident that it stamps all over the hops, pumping out spicy esters and turning the base beer into baked-apples-with-raisins delight.
Well, delight might be a bit strong: it’s not the best Belgian-style beer we’ve had by a long chalk, but really was both a demonstration of what Belgian yeasts do as well as being tasty.
What we learned: ‘Belgian’ is definitely a flavour.
We hope Brewdog do this again but, next time, the base beer needs to be better and, more importantly, plainer. Legendary British brewer Sean ‘Rooster’s’ Franklin has often spoken of pale’n’hoppy beers brewed without dark malts as providing a ‘blank canvas’ for other ingredients, and that’s what was probably needed here.
We also think there’s something jarring about the application of the Brewdog branding to this product. The beers are not exciting or awesome, even though one is very nice, and the Rock Horns rhetoric is misplaced. We’d suggest that, next year, they call the pack Understanding Yeast: practical exercises for the classroom (J. Watt & M. Dickie) and package it in textbook white.
We bought our four-pack as part of an online order from Brewdog’s own store. It cost £9.50 + delivery (around £2.35 per bottle).