Checking in On Wylam and Northern Monk

Last year we hatched a grand plan to try beers that other bloggers named in their Christmas 2016 Golden Pints posts. That didn’t quite come off but did prompt us, eventually, to revisit Wylam and Northern Monk.

We bought the following beers from Beer Ritz with the support of Patreon subscribers like Alec Latham and Will Jordan — thanks, folks!

  • Northern Monk Heathen, 440ml can, £4.16
  • Northern Monk Mango Lassi Heathen, 440ml can, £4.87
  • Wylam Table Beer, 330ml bottle, £2.51
  • Wylam Sweetleaf IPA, 440ml can, £4.50
  • Wylam Slack Jaw IPA, 330ml bottle, £3.12

Heathen IPA was one of the specific beers on the Golden Pints master list, described by Simon Girt (@LeedsBeerWolf) as having ‘consistent, dank, juicy appeal’. In its big, colourful can it certainly looked exciting and enticing. Pale and hazy, our first reaction was, oof, onion soup! The body is velvety and milky, even creamy, with a chewable calcium tablet quality. Beyond the onion we got weed, armpits, and the stink of overripe fruit sitting in the sun. It’s not our kind of thing, especially at 7.2% ABV, but is one of the better examples of this kind of beer we’ve encountered — as clean and precise as the style permits.

Mango Lassi IPA.
It’s near-relation, Mango Lassi Heathen, smelled much more appealing — sweet and summery, all pop art and shower gel. It contains real mango but doesn’t taste ‘flavoured’. It too is milky with a delicate yogurt acidity of such subtlety that we might even have completely imagined it based on the beer’s name. There is a lime-peel kick, too, which brings to mind beach-side cocktails. It is full of fizz and prickle and, for us, easier drinking than straight Heathen, albeit not quite as exciting or outlandish as the name promises. And, ouch, that price tag. (This one was a 2016 Golden Pints pick from the Beernomicon podcast AKA @Beernomicon.)

We should say that, overall, we feel quite warm towards Northern Monk, whose core beers are among the most reliable and best value around. If you like this type of beer, you’ll probably like these particular beers. If you don’t, they won’t convert you.

Wylam DH.

These next three weren’t on any specific Golden Pints lists but Wylam generally did well and throughout 2017 seemed to buzz away in the background, quietly impressing people, so we reckon it’s a brewery that warrants frequent check-ins.

DH Table Beer, which offered a pleasing inversion of a familiar narrative. At only 3.5% ABV and with a mere three months to run on the best before countdown we expected it to be knackered and thus earn us some ‘drink fresh’ reprimands; but, in reality, it could hardly have tasted fresher — as if they’d somehow captured and packaged a spring breeze as it passed over a field of young grass. It’s an interesting beer, too — lemony, coconutty and very dry, with a quirky Belgian yeast character that brings to mind the weakest of the Chimay’s or Elusive’s wonderful Plan-B. Perhaps the long shelf-life is explained by the high bitterness, which in turn seems to be pleasingly softened by the light haze. It is perhaps a touch too raw and rustic but what it is not is boring, or stale, or dull, or dirty. We’d drink this again.

Slackjaw IPA was, by contrast, rather a disappointment. Is it supposed to taste a touch salty, and have that faint sourness? Beyond that, even at a mere 6%, it tastes like a dark double IPA of the 2007 school in which caramel malts and hops combine to suggest strawberry jam. It was passable, certainly drinkable, and red fruit plus acidity did add up to a certain freshly-squeezed quality. We suspect age and packaging problems might have dulled its edge and will certainly give it another chance, especially if we encounter it on tap.

Finally there came Sweet Leaf, a big, modern IPA (7.4%) in a big, modern can. Yellow and cloudy it certainly looked the part and threw up a wonderful ornamental garden aroma of fleshy flowers and strange fruit. The flavour combination — green onion and sweet pineapple — didn’t quite work for us but was certainly distinctive. A bit of dirtiness in the aftertaste was also distracting. Overall, though, it would seem to be another solid example of the style of the day, and might be just the thing for palates fatigued by excesses of citrus.

Wylam, then, stay in about the same place on our mental rankings: capable of great things, but lacking the polish and reliability of, say, Thornbridge.

Patreon’s Choice #4: Boundary Brewing

This is the fourth in a series of posts with notes on beers chosen for us by our Patreon subscribers. (If you want bonus posts and to steer what we write about sign up for the price of half-a-pint per month.)

The Beer Nut (Twitter, must-read blog) suggested that we try some beers from Boundary, a brewing company based in Belfast, Northern Ireland:

They’ve been on my “Hmm, not sure” list for a while, even as their recipes get more and more ambitious. I don’t see many of their beers where I live and am curious as to how they’re getting on.

Here’s how Boundary describes itself on its website:

We are a Cooperative Brewery in Belfast owned and run by our members. Opening our doors in 2014, we are the first brewery in NI to bring together modern US styles with the more traditional Belgian/French style beers.

What this seems to mean in practice is some variation on crowdfunding whereby investors of various sizes invest in and co-own the company, in exchange for beer and parties, with the promise of interest and dividends “when it is appropriate”.

We bought our selection of their beer via Beer Ritz online and tackled them in ascending order of alcoholic strength (up the ladder) as is our usual approach.

Four beers from Boundary in their glasses.

First came the American Pale Ale at 3.5% ABV and £2.53 per 330ml bottle. Unfortunately, this was what we’d call an outright dud. There was a dab of acid, the spectre of some malt flavour, and then a long trudge through papery, saliva-like, watery nothingness. At the end we thought we detected a faint chilli-like burn that we’re fairly certain wasn’t supposed to be there. We wished for it to be more bitter, more fruity, boozier, or even sweeter — just more something.

Next came G.O.A.T. which is billed as a New England IPA at 4.8% and £2.77 per 330ml. This one, at least, had a pleasing aroma — that have-an-Outspan, electric air-freshener zap you get from Cloudwater or BrewDog takes on this style. It looked like a textbook NEIPA, too, which is to say distinctly overcast, and lurking somewhere between grey and green. The flavour was a let down, though, reminding us distinctly of the time we tried to make a German-style wheat beer with dried ale yeast. The word we kept using was dirty. We struggled to finish this one and, indeed, didn’t.

The bigger NEIPA in the set, Forever Ago, has an ABV of 6% and cost £3.13 for 330ml. This had less aroma than G.O.A.T. and was also less hazy. It had a really rough foretaste — it actually made us say, “Ugh!” — with some off-putting sourness, too. There was some apricot or mango in there but, again, not enough to drown out the bum notes or sell the beer. Perhaps this might have been better if we’d drunk it the week it was bottled but it had a best before date of August 2018 so surely shouldn’t have tasted so completely exhausted.

Finally, Export Stout at 7% cost £3.43 per 330ml and — thank goodness as we are beginning to feel mean — was very decent. A hint of acidity here works to underline a sour cherry character, which in turn harmonises with a dusty, musty dark chocolate truffle character. We might have preferred more body and sweetness but, without them, it pulls of the trick of seeming vaguely Belgian. Was there even, perhaps, a hint of Brettanomyces in action? We would generally expect a bit more from a beer at this strength and price but we enjoyed it and would certainly try other dark beers from Boundary.

Patreon’s Choice #3: Odyssey Spottieottiehopaliscious

This is the third in a series of posts with notes on beers chosen for us by our Patreon subscribers. (If you want a ton of bonus stuff, and to tell us what to drink, sign up!)

Chris Gooch suggested that we try something, anything, from Herefordshire brewery, Odyssey. What Beer Ritz had in stock was Spottieottiehopaliscious, an American pale ale at 5.4% ABV. One 500ml bottle cost a rather wince-inducing £4.43.

The packaging is interesting, pitched somewhere between old school real ale and modern craft — vaguely folky, acoustic, fibrous.

The beer itself was golden with a loose but steady head, none of which, frankly, we were really able to focus on over the intoxicating, incredible aroma. It filled the air with blossom, with orange, grapefruit and peach. If something can smell sweet, this beer did, as if it was triggering some dormant ability to detect the ripest nearby fruit with a twitch of the nostrils.

It didn’t taste quite as astonishing, sadly. It seemed soft and pillowy on the palate and brought to mind tinned mandarin segments, or maybe some long-forgotten soft drink of the 1980s. Which is not to say it lacks bitterness — that sat there, adding weight, like a granite marble on the back of the tongue. There was, thank goodness, no onion or armpit, the appreciation of which in vogue characteristics is apparently beyond us. Overall it reminded us of Thornbridge’s fun, approachable pale ale Chiron, only looser and a touch funkier.

We found it, in short, thoroughly likeable and enjoyable. Nearly five-quid’s-worth of likeable? Maybe not quite.

Q&A: Beers for Stashing

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

“Any recommendations for stash beers?” — Rob G.

This question came up in the context of a Twitter discussion in which someone shared a photo of their collection of special beers inteded for ageing. It included Fuller’s Vintage Ale, Old Chimney’s Good King Henry, Courage Russian Imperial and Lees Harvest Ale, which is a pretty good list to begin with.

Now, we’re not really into ageing beer ourselves, purely because we haven’t got the time, space or money to do it properly, but we’re certainly interested and so have had a go at answering this question. We suspect more useful advice will emerge in the commments.

First, some thoughts on general principles.

One reason for building a collection is to enable comparison over time, either by drinking the same beer at intervals and keeping notes, or by drinking multiple vintages of the same beer in a so-called ‘vertical tasting’. With that in mind it makes sense to focus on better-established breweries that have been producing a big stout or barley wine for some years and look set to continue brewing it for a few years more. That way you should be able to collect a set worth playing with. There’s also a sort of insurance in buying from breweries who know what they’re doing, and whose beer is less likely to reveal flaws and off-flavours over time.

When we spoke to Jezza (@BonsVoeux1) for our recent article on Belgium obsessives in CAMRA’s BEER magazine he mentioned that when stocking his collection of aged and ageing beer he now buys “huge quantities at a time”. That’s because he frequently found himself wishing he’d bought a lot more of a beer as it reached a state of perfection after many years hidden in his cupboard. So we’d say that means looking for beers that aren’t prohibitively expensive and which you can conceive of buying by the case, perhaps with only a bit of wincing and digging around for coppers down the back of the sofa.

Or, to put all that another way, this is one area where ‘boring’, easy-to-buy beers and breweries are probably a safer bet than obscurities.

We found that the Fuller’s Past Masters 1893 Double Stout got better over the course of a couple of years, and the bottle we found in a London pub that must have been three years old was astonishingly good. You won’t find any of that around now but that’s an example of the kind of beer we should have bought a lot more of and left alone. Fuller’s Imperial Stout, a new batch of which is out now, is a similar beer (but not quite as good, in our view) and will probably age in similar ways.

A beer Jezza mentioned as a particular focus of his ageing project was De Dolle Stille Nacht which, when available, can be picked up in the UK for between £4-5 per 330ml bottle. (He has bottles going back to 1989.)

Belgian beers, tending to the strong and sweet, generally age well. (But triples, wheat beers and hop-focused beers probably won’t yield as much from ageing, even if they’ll sell ’em to you at Kulminator.) Rochefort 10 is one we’d consider filling a cellar with, especially if you can pick it up in Belgium at Belgian prices — it’s getting prohibitively expensive in the UK.

Orval (not especially strong or sweet) is one famous example of a beer often drunk aged and which has the benefit of showing its development relatively quickly, over the course of months rather than years. If you bought a batch of twelve every six months, at around £30-40 a go, you’d be able to compare fresh with six-month, with one-year, with two-years, and so on, and soon learn its ways and your own preferences. (It is also good for magically enhancing other beers.)

The Beer Nut’s side project, Stash Killer, is a useful source of knowledge on what time does to specific beers. Of an 8-year-old Westmalle Dubbel, an easy to find, consistent and affordable beer, he says:

There’s sweet sherry in the flavour… which is possibly just oxidation at work, but it does transform the beer in a fun and pleasant way. It hasn’t become magically heavier than usual, but it has elements of the things you find in double-digit dark Belgian-style beers: the fruit, the cake, the rounded estery greasiness, though not the heat. It still remains lightly textured and easy drinking… Seems to me like a handy way to upgrade your Westmalle Dubbel into something more complex is leave it alone for a few years.

That sounds like something we’ll have to try. Do look at his other posts for more suggestions.

If you want to read something more substantial on this we recommend Patrick Dawson’s 2014 book Vintage Beer which contains detailed notes on how to age beer, what to expect from the process, general advice on which types of beer generally age well, as well as tips on which specific beers to buy.

Now, to those comments — tell us, what’s worked for you?

QUICK POST: Alphabet Brewing Co Flat White Breakfast Stout

Flat White Breakfast Stout.

This beer was part of a batch ordered from Beer Ritz and paid for by Patreon subscribers like Simon Branscombe and Jared Kiraly — thanks, chaps!

We chose this particular beer because it came up as a suggestion in last year’s Golden Pints. A 330ml can at 7.4% ABV cost £3.19.

The can is rather cool looking and the name is appealing: breakfast is a lovely word for starters, and flat white (a small amount of smooth steamed milk over espresso) is just about hanging in there as the hip coffee preparation of the day even though you can now get them in Greggs.  We can imagine this cropping up in cafes and delis, appealing to people who might not otherwise be that into beer.

We don’t know much about Alphabet other than that a friend of a friend who was in the process of setting up a brewery in Manchester tells us they’re nice people, and that cans of their Hoi Polloi pilsner we tried earlier this year were decent enough.

The name hints at the stylistic gimmick at the heart of this beer: it is a stout but not black as we’ve come to expect. This is idea with some historical basis previously mined most notably by Durham Brewery. One immediate problem, though, is that, though pale for a stout, it is by no means white. In fact, it is reddish brown — the least remarkable colour for beer other than yellow. So an exciting proposition — Wonder At the Freakish White Stout! — is anything but in execution. ‘Pale’ might better have set our expectations but even that would be pushing it. Still, it did look appetising enough on its own terms, clear and gleaming.

The second problem, unfortunately, was a big stale aroma that caused us to recoil rather than to smack our lips in anticipation. Where there ought to have been perhaps a touch of smoke or fruit there was a sort of damp, dirty basement stink — the wrong kind of dank altogether.

Once we’d got past that (aromas recede after the initial encounter) the taste was interesting, definitely dark-tasting (because dark is a flavour in beer), slightly spicy, with some suggestion of cherry, and a lot of burnt cream. The resemblance to coffee, in other words, was specifically to those sweetened, flavoured, very milky dessert coffees that abound at this time of year. We didn’t particularly like it, just as we don’t particularly like that kind of coffee, but we can see how it might appeal to palates other than ours.

Unfortunately that staleness was a deal-breaker. This can was theoretically good for another few weeks, until 17 December, and has been stored in the cool and dark since we bought it, but we’d say it actually expired some time ago. And, once again, like a stuck record, we have to point the finger at dodgy packaging, or packaging processes. We’re getting more and more wary of cans from smaller breweries, especially when they cost as much as a pint of ale at our local. In this case, we feel a bit swizzed.