Artyfacts from the Nyneties #6: Beers of ’94

Sainsbury's Biere de Garde.
SOURCE: JS Journal Online (PDF).

Yesterday we stumbled upon a 2006 ‘top ten bottled British ales’ listicle by Pete Brown which we shared on Twitter, and which reminded us of something we found during research on Brew Britannia: a list of 101 bottled reviewed by Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s for an article in British tabloid the People in 1994.

It appeared in the Sunday edition for 21 August that year and offers an excellent snapshot of what was then readily available in British shops.

It’s from just the moment when Premium Bottled Ales were coming into existence in their almost-a-pint bottles and at around pub strength, shoving aside traditional half-pint brown and light ales.

There are some surprises but, generally, we think, it brings home how far things have come.

Jackson subscribed to the view that it was a waste of time to write bad reviews when you could focus on things you’d enjoyed but in this exercise was essentially forced to give a short note for each beer, some of which were uncharacteristically stinging.  Carlsberg Special Brew, for example, he found “sweet and yucky” and Scorpion Dry prompted him to ask: “Where’s the sting? More like cabbage water.”

On the whole, though, he remained quite gentle, even finding diplomatic words to say about some fairly bland lagers such as Rolling Rock with its touch of “new-mown hay”.

The asterisked beers are those he particularly recommended — quite a high bar, evidently.

Continue reading “Artyfacts from the Nyneties #6: Beers of ’94”

The Ethereal Form of the Spirit of a Place

Where exactly is the Staropramen we get in 330ml bottles in UK supermarkets brewed? Probably not Prague, but good luck pinning it down any more precisely than that from the packaging.

We don’t dislike Staropramen (or haven’t disliked it, of which more in a moment) and have drunk a fair few pints and bottles of it over the years, despite knowing that it’s not generally highly regarded by experts in Czech beer. If we want a lager to drink at a barbecue or to swig from the bottle at a party — come on, this is one of life’s great pleasures! — we’ll sometimes pick up a four-quid four-pack at the supermarket. That’s how we ended up holding bottles in our hands on Sunday and, for the first time in ages, really looking at the packaging.

Staropramen.

Established in Prague. Proudly brewed since 1849. #1 Prague beer in the world. The spirit of Prague. Then, in tiny print, “Brewed and bottled in the EU for Molson Coors Brewing Company (UK) Ltd.”

That all reads to us like the most weaselly possible way of saying NOT ACTUALLY BREWED IN PRAGUE.

So, where is it brewed if not there?

Molson Coors has brewing plants elsewhere in the Czech Republic, and all over the EU, from Bulgaria to Burton-upon-Trent. But we have a suspicion if this version of the beer was brewed in the UK they would be less shy about it, on the basis that they’re reasonably open about the fact that Pravha, the 4% draught variant, is brewed here.

Our guess as to what’s going on, at least in part, is that there is no single point of origin, and that they’re keeping their options open with regard to logistics. Perhaps some of the Staropramen we get in the UK is sometimes brewed in Prague, or at least elsewhere in the Czech Republic, but there might be occasional periods when additional demand is fulfilled by plants in, say, Croatia. Being more specific on the labels would make this kind of flexibility difficult.

So, who can say for sure? We’ve emailed to ask this specific question and will let you know if we hear back.

As to the quality of the beer… Well, we’ve stuck up for it longer than some but it really did taste a bit rough to us this time; harsh and nasty, with the same odd hot, plasticky tang we also pick up in Stella Artois and San Miguel in particular. Perhaps that’s the result of the brewing taking place away from home; or because the beer now only uses “ingredients including Czech hops” (our emphasis); or because the lagering time is a mere “couple of weeks”. Most likely, it’s a combination of these and a lot of other smaller corner cutting exercises, themselves the symptom of a lack of respect for the beer, even if the brand continues to be worth milking.

And why is the brand valuable? Because people think they’re buying something from Prague — a genuine import, a reminder of adventures past, something for which it is worth paying a (small) premium — just like we did on Sunday afternoon.

Where a beer is from, or appears to be from, does matter, at least to the marketing people whose job it is to persuade consumers to buy it.

Patreon’s Choice: The Irish Set

These days, Irish beer isn’t all about Guinness, as demonstrated by this interesting bunch which ranges from rye ale to ‘ice cream IPA’.

Of course we used that awful, cliched opening line purely to troll the Beer Nut whose suggestion it was via Patreon to try some of the Irish beers in stock at Honest Brew.

  • Yellowbelly Castaway Passionfruit Sour, £2.79, 330ml can
  • Boyne Brewhouse Vienna Lager, £2.39, 330ml can
  • Kinnegar Rustbucket Hopped Rye Ale, £2.49, 330ml bottle
  • Whiplash Scaldy Split Ice Cream IPA, £4.59, 500ml can
  • Galway Bay Solemn Black DBIPA, £3.69, 330ml bottle

We drank them over the course of a couple of nights while we were tied to the house for one reason or another, tackling them in ascending order of ABV, except that we got Rustbucket and the Vienna Lager the wrong way round because we weren’t paying attention.

A glass of flat, orange beer.

Yellowbelly’s passion fruit sour, at 4.2% ABV, fizzed like e a bonfire night sparkler then went completely flat in about four seconds. It had a great passion fruit aroma, billowing and beguiling, and, crikey, did it taste sour. Ray found it less heavy going than Jessica because he drinks soft drinks and she doesn’t (tea, please!) and what it resembled more than anything was some new variant grown-up version of Fanta. In fact, we picked up two types of sour — the citric acid of fruit and the kind of sweaty funk we associate with Gose. On balance, though we found plenty to enjoy, we both wanted it to taste more like beer, and would probably rather have a can of Rubicon at a fifth of the price.

Kinnegar Rustbucket glowing in its glass.

Kinnegar Rustbucket, at 5.1%, was more our kind of thing. It smelled wonderful, taking us back to those days of a decade ago when Goose Island IPA was considered Way Out There, all orange and pine. Red-brown in colour, it tasted like a well executed, tongue-coating, jammy IPA of the old school, and gave the impression of being a much bigger beer. It was perfectly clean, nicely bitter, and just a touch peppery by way of a twist. What a breath of fresh air, and good value, too. We’d drink more of this.

Boyne Brewhouse Vienna, at 5%, had the sexiest graphic design of the lot with its black and purple can, and looked great in the glass, too, being a gorgeous gold with a cap of thick white foam. But unfortunately it tasted weird — bad weird — in a way we’ve never encountered. Some banana, maybe? Apple? Gritty, grainy, unfinished. As if it was a little unwell, and threatened to send us the same way. We couldn’t finish it. Sorry!

Whiplash Scaldy Split had about it the air of the main event: it came in the biggest can, cost the most, and is billed, rather excitingly, as an ice cream IPA. The ingredient list included multiple malts, vanilla and lactose (milk sugar), as well as reliable old Citra hops. The beer was a sort of queasy, homemade custard yellow, cloudy but not soupy, with an attractive, stable head. The problem is — and this does happen from time to time — we each perceived it quite differntly. Jessica found it a mess, from the petrol aroma to a flavour so excessively dank it seemed to have gone through hoppy and come out the other side at student bedsit carpet. Ray, on the other hand, used words like smooth, subtle, tasteful, and fun… Again, we wonder if his relatively sweet tooth might make him feel warmer towards this kind of beer. Or maybe that long list of ingredients combined to create particular unusual flavours and aromas to which we might be respectively more or less sensitive. Anyway, if you like thick, hazy, hoppy beers, you’ll probably enjoy this one; if you don’t, you probably won’t.

A glass of black beer with a huge head.

Finally, there was Galway Bay’s Solemn Black double black IPA at 9%.  Phew, what a mouthful, and that goes for the description and the beer. From the first sip, we just straight up liked this one a lot. (Both of us, thank goodness — much simpler that way.) Thankfully its supposed status as a black IPA didn’t mean lots of clashing, clattering hops tripping over dark malt flavours, as is too often the case, and it struck us as an imperial stout to all intents and purposes. We found it a silky beer that was all melted milk chocolate upfront, and turned to port wine the longer it sat on the tongue. And it sat on the tongue for a good long time, reverberating almost forever. When we left it long enough, and it’s not a beer to rush through, some grassy hop character eventually suggested itself, along with a burnt-toast black malt note. A happy place on which to conclude this whirl through the world of Irish beer.

Patreon’s Choice: Beers from Orbit

We asked our Patreon supporters which beers we should order from Honest Brew earlier this year and Paul B suggested we try bottled beers from Orbit.

We bought one of each available from Honest Brew at £2.59 per 330ml bottle and sat down to try them, paired with some trashy TV, on Sunday night.

We had no particular preconceptions about Orbit and couldn’t recall if we’d ever tried any before. We definitely hadn’t heard any of the trusted London beer commentators raving about them which made us suspect they might not be in the top rank but the packaging was smart and the choice of styles interesting so we went in feeling mildly optimistic.

Now, a confession: once again time slipped away from us and Ivo, the pale ale at 4.5% ABV, had slipped past it’s best before date. It was bottled in October and had a tight six month BBE so it doesn’t seem fair to offer any notes, except to say that it neither delighted nor appalled us, and we aren’t averse to the idea of trying a fresher bottle or draught half some time, especially as the new head brewer at Orbit has tweaked the recipe.

Altbier in a glass on a knitted beer mat.

Neu, a take on Düsseldorf Altbier at 4.7%, intrigued us. Alt is a somewhat elusive style about 80 per cent of the appeal of which is the culture and history surrounding it. Take that away and you have a fairly low ABV, straightforward brown beer that sits, in terms of character, somewhere between British best bitter and German dark lager. This example was brown but with flashing highlights of gold and orange, pleasingly clear and bright under fluffy white foam. In our one surviving souvenir Altbier glass it looked, at least, utterly convincing. The flavour, too, was impressively clean, with a crisp bitterness. There was a suggestion of roastiness in the flavour but no sticky toffee which made us think the colour was from black malt rather than the caramel-crystal family. Overall, we liked it, even if — true to type — it was a fundamentally simple, unthrilling beer. If you’re learning about Continental beer styles and want a solid example of Alt, this would certainly do the job, and tastes better, we reckon, than most of the readily available big name imports.

A chalice of golden beer.
Peel is a Belgian-influenced blonde ale at 4.3% — an emerging sub-style in UK brewing which we tend to like, with Belgian yeast adding welcome extra layers to otherwise simple, low ABV beers. This one was a clear, bright gold, and gave off a powerful Witbier aroma of citrus and the spice cupboard. The dominant flavour was a big squeeze of strangely artificial-tasting lemon, beyond which was something like an English golden ale with the bite of honey. It felt thin and watery rather than light and dry; harsh and jarring where we wanted soft and funky; and cacophonous rather than complex. In other words, we couldn’t tell you exactly why it didn’t work for us, but it didn’t, and we can’t imagine buying it over many actual Belgian beers.

So, two beers in, one solid, the other not to our taste, Orbit go on to the Benefit of Doubt list rather than Avoid.

Patreon’s Choice: Bottled Beers From Siren

Oat Couture

This is another in an occasional series of posts about beers suggested to us by our Patreon supporters. Tim Thomas (@timofnewbury/@UllageBeer) wanted us to try some bottled beers from one of his local breweries, Siren, so we did.

First, though, we want to set out where Siren sits in our mental rankings of UK breweries. We’ve encountered its beers fairly frequently over the last few years in cask, keg and bottle, and have sometimes enjoyed them. Most recently we were delighted by Kisetsu, a ‘Japanese Saison’, and had a very pleasant night on QIPA, a barely boozy cask-conditioned ale at 2.8%. Some of the bigger, stranger beers aren’t quite to our taste — we found Caribbean Chocolate Cake too sweet, and Limoncello too intense to drink in any great volume — but we can tell they are basically decent, properly made beers constructed around interesting ideas.

And the middle-ground, core range pale ales and IPAs have always seemed fine, if perhaps a bit rough and oniony, with not much to commend them over many other examples of the same style.

When we walk into a pub or bar and see a Siren beer on offer, we often order it, but, at the same time, they’re not a brewery that springs to mind when we’re asked to name favourites, which we reckon puts them somewhere in the second division.

The four beers we looked at this time were all ordered from Beer Ritz back in October:

  • Oat Couture, 33oml, £2.72
  • Cerealist Manifesto, 33oml, £3.38
  • I Love You Honey Bunny, 33oml, £3.89
  • American Oak Brown, 33oml, £3.47

Oat Couture is billed as a hazy American pale ale at 4% ABV and was brewed in collaboration with beer retailer Clapton Craft. It poured with only a slight mist and a pleasing gold glow. The aroma was good, all green leaves and orange fruit, suggesting some sweaty greenhouse at Kew. The taste was initially soapy and husky, more tonic than pleasure, but seemed to improve as it went down. It is essentially a light, rather dry pale ale, defined by bread-crust malt flavour and lingering bitterness, with a twist of lemon zest to liven it up. The bit of suspended yeast, we think, softened the edges and added a savoury hum we’d rather wasn’t there. Overall, we liked it without quite being impressed. A good-natured shrug of a beer.

American Oak Brown -- off-white foam.

American Oak Brown, being a big, dark beer at 5.8%, made a stronger impression. In the process of constructing its stack of off-white foam it threw out grassy aromas and vanilla scent, like a cinema bucket of Coke. We expected it to be thin after all that fizz and fuss but it was actually mouth-coating and sticky, like chocolate buttons. The flavours you might expect from a dark beer are there, especially coffee, but also more of that raw, green hoppiness which on this occasion really worked with the carbonation to lift the beer. We really enjoyed this one and would happily drink it again.

We’ll only give a brief note on I Love you Honey Bunny a 6.3% honey and oat IPA brewed in collaboration with The Other Half, because we let the bottle slip past its best before date. We wouldn’t say anything at all except that, BBE or not, it tasted like perfectly good, fresh and zesty bottled pale ale. (Perhaps if we’d got to it sooner there’d have been more of the advertised fruit smoothie quality.)

Cerealist manifesto was the biggest beer of the set — a 9% imperial stout brewed on collaboration with Slim Pickens using Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal — and a hit for us, just about. It’s a fat, beefy beer that smells of girders, cherry and rum. There’s something of root beer or botanical cola in the flavour, followed up by a distinct but subtle spicy burn, and some background earthy dirtiness acting as a mild spoiler. It’s somehow buttery without tasting like butter — Werther’s Originals? It’s certainly a strange, exotic dessert of a beer that’s a bit loud and could easily be obnoxious, but in the right mood, is just great fun. Perfect for the Midway at the State Fair, if you can find a way to fry it on a stick.

Overall, this leaves Siren about where they started in our eyes: a brewery that throws a lot of mud, some of which sticks, and some of which even glitters.