Where Can We Buy Your Beer?

The cover of the Beer Map of Great Britain, 1970s.

With (give or take — counts vary) something like 1,600 breweries currently operating in the UK a common complaint is the difficulty for smaller operators of getting those beers to consumers.

Big pub companies, chains and supermarkets dominate the market, buying beer from a chosen few breweries willing to meet their demanding terms. In many regions one or two large players (e.g. St Austell) control many of the pubs leaving a fistful of freehouses to fight over. And, so we gather from interviews and off-the-record chat, new small breweries can sometimes find themselves muscled out by better-established players of more or less the same size.

Yesterday we got involved in some Twitter chat about beer from Devon (there’s a poll, actually, if you feel like voting) and a version of what seems to us to be a common conversation unfurled. To paraphrase:

A: There’s no good beer in [PLACE]!

B: Yes there is — breweries X, Y and Z are awesome!

A: But I’ve never actually seen those beers for sale anywhere.

B: Ah.

In this context we’re beginning to think the single most important bit of information a small brewery can share is intelligence on where we can actually buy their beer, if it’s anything other than fairly ubiquitous.

It might be in the farmers’ market in Fulchester every third Sunday of the month; it might be in the delicatessen in Dufton; the bottle shop in Barchester; or the Coach & Horses in Casterbridge. We will go out of our way (a bit) to find a beer that sounds interesting, or to try something new on our beat, but we need a few hints, ideally without having to email or direct message the brewery. (And sometimes, even when we do that, we get ‘No idea, sorry’, or ‘It’s should be in a few pubs round Borsetshire this month’.)

A daily updated page on the brewery website, Facebook page or Twitter would probably work best.

We certainly appreciate that in the case of cask ale, even if a brewery knows a pub has taken delivery, it can be hard to say exactly when it’s going to go on or, equally, if it’s already sold out. Even so, wouldn’t a quick exchange of info between publican and brewer — a text message or social media nudge — be mutually beneficial here?

But perhaps there are good reasons why this doesn’t often seem to happen.

In the meantime, if you don’t know where your beer is on sale, and can’t tell people who want to buy it, then it almost might as well not exist.

The Craft Beer Life on a Budget

Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?

We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…

…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:

Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)

This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.

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The A-Team

Illustration: the A-Team.

Without quite meaning to we’ve acquired some habits — a line-up of bottled beers that we always have in the cupboard or fridge.

What follows is probably as near as you’ll ever get from us to an X Beers Before You Y list.

Bitter (pale ale) or pale and hoppy session beers we tend to drink in the pub. We’re spoiled for choice, really, even in Penzance, and even more so if we take the bus out to the Star at Crowlas. Still, it’s worth saying that St Austell Proper Job is our default pub drink these days. It’s for the more unusual styles that we resort to bottles.

Anchor Porter from the US which goes at around £2-3 per 355ml bottle in the UK is our go-to beer in the stout family. We arrived at this decision after proper testing. When the urge for a dark beer that really tastes dark overcomes us, this is the one we reach for, knowing it will be great every time.

There are lots of great Belgian beers but one that never gets boring, because it’s the best beer in the world, is Westmalle Tripel. There are always a couple of bottles of this in every order we place.

Orval is our favourite example of… Orval. We went from being sceptical to puzzled to devotees over the course of a couple of years. We love it in its own right — it’s always different, yet somehow the same — but we also like to play with it. It’s our house stock ale if you like.

We don’t often need a stout more robust than Anchor Porter but when we do it’s Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout. It tastes its strength, coats the tongue, and comes with a tractor-trailer of funky weirdness that really does ensure a single glass can last all evening. One case every other year seems to do the job, though.

This is both our most boring choice and likely to be most controversial: we’ve yet to find a flowery, aromatic American-style IPA that is better value or more reliably enjoyable than BrewDog Punk. Every time we open a bottle or can we say, ‘Wow!’ which is exactly what we want from this kind of beer. Nine times out of ten Proper Job at the Yacht Inn is all the hops we need but this is the one we keep at home when our blood-humulone levels drop to dangerously low levels.

When we want something sour and refreshing we consistently turn to Magic Rock Salty Kiss. It’s not overly strong, not overly acidic, and is just the right kind of acidic for us, too. (But we won’t say too much — it’s coming up in the current round of Magical Mystery Pour.)

But there are still vacancies — styles where we play the field. When it comes to lager, we currently cycle through St Austell Korev (great value, easy to find), Thornbridge Tzara (yes, we know, not technically a lager, but technically brilliant) and Schlenkerla Helles (the smoke is just enough of a twist to keep us excited). Even though we tasted a load of them we still don’t have a bottled mild we feel the need to have permanently at hand — it’s a pub beer, really. We tend to buy Saison Dupont or BrewDog Electric India but that’s not a lock — we’re still actively auditioning others and saison isn’t something we drink every week. When we get the urge to drink wheat beer, we’re still happy with Hoegaarden, and most German brands do what they need to do, so we just pop to the shops.

So, that’s us. A tendency to conservatism, to the safe option, and to the familiar. (Which is, of course, what Magical Mystery Pour is intended to counter.)

But what about you — do you have any go-to beers? What are they? Or does the whole idea of drinking the same beers over and again just bore you to death?

How We Choose What to Drink

You walk into a pub or bar and are faced with, say, eight or more beers. Which do you go for, and why?

We were trying to work out if we have a system, subconscious or otherwise, and here’s what we reckon our order of preference is.

  1. Anything that’s on our wish list.
  2. Something new by a favourite brewery.
  3. An old favourite we don’t see often.
  4. A beer we’ve tried but want to give more thought to.
  5. Something from a new brewery we’ve heard is interesting.
  6. Anything new that doesn’t ring alarm bells.
  7. An old favourite we have all the time.
  8. Whatever vaguely OK but boring cask ale or ‘craft beer’ they’ve got.
  9. Guinness, or gin and tonic.

Continue reading “How We Choose What to Drink”

Magical Mystery Pour #5: Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We asked noted beer writer Joe Stange (@Thirsty_Pilgrim) to select our second batch of Magical Mystery Pour beers and he said yes. Well, actually, he said:

  1. “Oh I like this. It’s like your friends actually letting you play DJ at a party.”
  2. “You know, it’s very tempting to troll you with the six worst beers I can think of.”

But, after further consideration, he decided on an entirely different theme: lager. Specifically, he chose a mix of Belgian, German and American beers, some that he knows well, others about which he is curious, all of which we then purchased with our own cash from Beers of Europe.

First, we tackled Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge, a 4.8% ABV, vaguely-heritage-y California golden lager. Joe hasn’t tried it but says:

This one comes all the way from Sacramento at 42 IBU. I hope it’s drinkable. The labels on these revivalist American lagers remind me of current generational tilts toward things like beard oil and cowboy rye whiskey. I expect a barber shop quarter to appear when you drink this.

It came in a 330ml can that cost £3.49 — not an outrageous price but not cheap either, especially for what you might call a basic beer style.

Initial impressions, even before opening the can, were mixed: on the one hand, the label was glued to the can which, with UK beers, we have tended to regard as a bad sign. On the other, we’ve rarely seen more informative blurb:

Labelling on Ruhstaller's can: hops, barley, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be anything to hide here which is reassuring, even if we don’t actually have any idea whether those are particularly great varieties of barley, or if these farms are anything special.

After pouring, we could but marvel: it looked so pretty. The head was as stiff as beaten egg-whites and the body of the beer, pale gold, almost seemed to give off a light of its own. (Although, to be fair, this is also true of, say, Stella Artois.)

Ruhstaller's in the glass on a beer mat.

The aroma was restrained — just an appetising wisp of herbs and citrus peel.

The flavour had a few stages: first, that crusty bread savoury-sweetness we associate with decent German beers, then a brief appearance from that twist of citrus, followed by — oh, blimey! — a crushing monster truck of unchecked bitterness. The first few sips were almost challenging, tipping way over from crisp into harsh. But the more we drank, the less that bothered us. Our palates adjusted to this new reality, just as the shock-inducing cold plunge at a spa gets to be fun after a while. We began to think that, yes, we’d like a few more of these in for the kind of hot day we’re sure is on the way, when the back of the throat demands something with real bite.

It’s typically American (if we can indulge in some stereotyping) in its boldness and frankness, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsubtle or silly. There are no grapefruits here.

If you think lager is bland, or you think Jever and Pilsner Urquell aren’t the beers they used to be, give this a try. It might just be the jolt you need.

Magical Mystery Pour #2: Tzatziki Sour

Magical Mystery Pour logo.The second beer suggested to us by Dina (read about the first here) is Tzatziki Sour by Liverpool’s Mad Hatter Brewery.

She says:

Many people considered this their beer of the year.  It was definitely up there for me.  Again, it does what it says on the bottle- it tastes just like tzatziki.  I’ve only had a few cucumber beers in my life, but I have no idea how brewers manage to get such flavour from a vegetable that really doesn’t have much flavour. You just HAVE to drink this beer. I recommend you blend it with a kebab in your face.

This is what we’ve previously referred to as a Jelly Belly Jelly Bean beer: a beer designed to taste as close as possible to another foodstuff altogether. It’s safe to say that if you have an objection to this type of beer and/or you don’t like tzatziki, you won’t like this one.

The bottle opened with an jet-powered hiss and gave off an immediately familiar aroma. Guess what it smelled like? No, go on, guess! Yes, that’s right: tzatziki! That is, mostly of cucumber, with a touch of dusty dried mint, and a high note of acid funk. (Side note: the label would probably work as the cover for an acid funk LP.)

Continue reading “Magical Mystery Pour #2: Tzatziki Sour”

The Best Bottled Milds Are…

After five elimination rounds we ended up with eight bottled milds to compare against each other in the big final.

  1. Banks’s (can)
  2. Elgood’s
  3. Holden’s
  4. Ilkley
  5. Moorhouse’s
  6. Norfolk Brewhouse
  7. St Peter’s
  8. Thwaites’s (can)

We followed what has become our usual procedure: Bailey numbered eight plastic beakers and poured samples, as above; Boak then tasted them blind, promoting and demoting until we were left with a rough pecking order. Bailey (who sort of knew which beer was which) then reviewed her rankings.

In this case, we were in broad agreement, with only a little debate over third and fourth place: one beer was relatively bland but clean, the other more flavourful but with a nagging off-note. In the end, we went with clean, but there wasn’t much in it.

First place badge.First place: Holden’s Black Country. A noticeably ‘bigger’ flavour without resorting to stout-like roastiness or flowery hoppiness. It seemed somehow more dense and concentrated than its rivals, despite its restrained ABV of 3.7%. It isn’t quite like drinking cask mild but nor is it overly carbonated or crystalline as some bottled ales can be. Worth buying by the case with a session or two in mind. It is available for £2.09 a bottle at Beers of Europe.

Second: Moorhouse’s Black Cat. The smoky note we detected first time round was even more pronounced in this company — verging on cigarette ash at times. Nonetheless, it seemed quintessentially mild-like, and interesting to boot. Beers of Europe have it at £2.05 a bottle; if you live in the North West, you should be able to find it in shops fairly easily, and probably cheaper.

Best value badge.Third: Thwaites’s. This one slightly surprised us as, at a mere 3.2%, we thought it might get washed away alongside stronger, more characterful competitors. Though almost bland, it isn’t quite, and a tongue-coating body makes for a very convincing pub-style beer. It’s certainly top in terms of value selling for around a quid a can in supermarkets.

Fourth: Ilkley Black. We still like this beer a lot but it seemed marred by a faint slick of butter this time round. We bought ours from Beer Ritz at £2.96 but we are told it can be found in Asda stores in the North at less than £2 a bottle.

As for the others, we found St Peter’s much less enjoyable than on our first encounter, with an unbearable stale cardboardiness; Banks’s seemed all but flavourless in this company; Elgood’s was rather fizzy and Cola-like; and Norfolk Brewhouse’s effort was excellent but (perhaps this bottle was fresher) had grassy, flowery hop notes that seemed quite out place. (Links are to our original tasting notes.)

At the end of all that, we’ve got a much clearer idea of what we think mild is about. First, it has to put sweet malt and flavours from sugar at the forefront, but that doesn’t have to mean that it has to be sickly or lacking in character. Bitterness can work, but excessive perfume just seems wrong. Roastiness also jars, suggesting that some brewers remain in thrall to out-of-date history that declares mild to be a degeneration of porter, which it isn’t. (Though baby stout is quite a nice thing in their own right.)

Most importantly, though, we’re now convinced that bottled mild can work after all — great news for those of us who live in regions where it is rarely seen in the pub, and also for those of you abroad who want to get to understand the style without having to book a flight to Britain.

Bottle Milds 4: Old & Dark

This time, we’re tasting two beers that weren’t on our original list, one from Glamorganshire, the other from Sussex.

There was a bit of angst on Twitter and elsewhere when we said we hadn’t been able to get Brain’s Dark for this tasting. We really did try, checking six or seven different supermarkets, and online. We’d given up and moved on when, suddenly, it appeared in our local Tesco. It wasn’t on display proper but hidden in a plastic-wrapped slab on top of the shelving from where a chap with a ladder had to retrieve two bottles. We paid £1.50 per 500ml in a four-for-six deal.

Despite the cryptic name the label trumpets a ‘best mild ale’ award from the World Beer Awards. The ABV is 4.1%, nudging above where most milds sit. It’s not bottle-conditioned or self-consciously artisanal so there were no gushes or quirks on pouring and it produced a glass of black topped with a thick wedge of beige without fuss. This is the blackest mild we’ve tasted so far — a real light-stopper.

Continue reading “Bottle Milds 4: Old & Dark”

Retro Bottles from Harvey’s

A £37.50 mixed case from Harvey’s of Lewes brought us a selection of 24 gloriously old school beers in tiny 275ml bottles.

They look as if they’ve been pulled from a dusty shelf behind the bar at a pub that closed in 1983 — not ‘faux-vintage’ but evidence that, if you wait long enough, most graphic design starts to look cool again. Here, we’ve focused on four that belong to styles popular in the mid-20th century but which have long been abandoned by most other breweries.

Blue Label (3.6%) sends all the signals of ‘light ale’ — a type of beer that all but disappeared with the arrival of ‘premium bottled ales’ in the 1990s. Being based, however, on the almost universally adored Sussex Best — the brown bitter even the most desperate hop-hounds conceded isn’t boring — turns out to be rather good. The carbonation is arguably too low — getting a head on the beer was tough and it slipped away instantly — except that this seems to give it a hop-oily, tongue-coating richness. The core flavour is toffee, yes, but it’s heavily seasoned with drying, grassy hops that leave a final twist of medicinal bitterness on the tongue. In short, it’s good beer in its own right, and much better, or at least more interesting, than many over-cooked bottled bitters available in supermarkets.

India Pale Ale (3.2%) is similar — amber-gold, caramelised sugar, stewed tea hoppiness — but watery with it. We reckon it’s a pretty good example of what IPA meant to British pub drinkers 30 or 40 years ago but how many beer geeks trained on Goose Island and BrewDog Punk have been let down by it in the last five years? It wasn’t any effort to drink but we’ll have another Blue Label next time, thanks.

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Bottled Milds 3: Fenland &c.

The third batch of milds in our taste-off are from Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Lincolnshire and we bought all three from Beers of Europe.

All three are traditional dark milds without twists or special ingredients:

  • 8 Sail Brewery Millwright Mild (3.5%, 500ml, £2.29)
  • Elgood’s Black Dog (3.6%, 500ml, £1.99)
  • St Peter’s Mild (3.7%, 500ml, £1.99)

8 Sail Brewery Millwright's Mild.

The label for 8 Sail’s Millwright Mild (Lincs) isn’t slickly designed and has the look about it of what we call ‘gift shop beer’. Popping the cap released a fierce hiss and we braced for a gusher but, fortunately, it behaved. The carbonation was notably high producing a tall, foamy head of tight bubbles. (It had dropped back a bit by the time we took the photo above.) It had what we’re beginning to think of as the classic look for dark mild: red against the light, almost black in the glass.

That high carbonation and fizz was a harbinger, though: something in this bottle had eaten through every last bit of sugar and turned the beer sour. Once we’d got over its failure as easy-drinking mild this presumably accidental result made for a beer that was interesting in its own right. It was a kind of dark gueuze — a Black Forest gateaux of cherry and cocoa flavours, with a dab of tar-like treacle. Unfortunately, all that was too much complexity for the relatively light body to bear. This isn’t a contender but we might try blending the second bottle with, say, Mann’s Brown, to mellow it out.

Elgood's Black Dog.

Elgood’s Black Dog (Cambs) gave off a surprisingly intense aroma on opening — a puff of greenhouse strawberries, or of Nesquik milkshake powder. It occupies the red-black borderlands and is topped with a tan head.

It has a relatively powerful flavour, too — traditional, yes, but with everything turned up a notch. Roastiness, a touch of plummy red wine and rich, dark chocolate bitterness bring to mind a general impression of the porters we tasted last year. Dark mild may not historically be ‘baby porter’ but that is clearly how some modern brewers approach it.

Unfortunately, we could not agree on this beer. The sticking point was an overripe fruit aroma that Bailey could barely detect but which Boak found distracting and off-putting: ‘Like cheap foam banana sweets.’ Though we are trying to narrow the field, we think it deserves a second chance and so (only just) it’s a contender.

St Peter's Brewery Mild.
Another brewery which has always divided us is St Peter’s (Suffolk). In the early days of our interest in beer, their distinctive oval green bottles were easy to find in supermarkets and corner shops and gave us access to a wide range of historic and quirky styles such as porter and fruit beer. Boak has always been a fan, Bailey has not.

Once again, we found ourselves with glasses of red-brown-black, topped with well-behaved, just-off-white foam.

The aroma was restrained — just a touch of charred malt — and it tasted like another session stout with severe bitterness and a suggestion of burnt-toast. There was a balancing sweetness, though, enhanced by a sort of almond essence nuttiness. That might, we though, become cloying over a session, but we both enjoyed it a lot (lots of ‘Mmmmmmm!’ and ‘Ooh!’) so it’s a definite contender.

UPDATE: We posted this in a rush while heading off to work and got the geography wrong. Apologies.