Getting to Know All About You

Adnam's Jack Brand Innovation IPA.

In the last year or two, we’ve started doing something quite new for us: ordering entire cases of the same beer.

Many beers have a superficial glamour on first tasting, or if enjoyed only occasionally, but when you have twelve, eighteen or twenty-four bottles to drink, you get beyond all that. If the tenth bottle tastes as good as the first, then you know you’ve got a keeper.

We were, for example, gushingly impressed with Adnams’ Jack Brand Innovation, a 6.7% American-inspired India Pale Ale, when we first tried it: a sweet orange liqueur, caramel toffee, ripe mango character made it seem bright and exciting. As we near the end of the case, however, that enthusiasm has waned. It’s still a perfectly decent beer, but one-dimensional and a little sickly, like a big bag of Haribo.

Twenty-four cans of the same brewery’s Ghost Ship, however, proved to be an excellent investment. Pilsner-pale, with a hard bitterness and big herbal hop aroma, it gave us much of what we enjoy in Brewdog Punk IPA but at 4.5% ABV instead of 5.9% — much better for school nights and long sessions. It’s also great value, even in dinky little 440ml cans, and perfect for throwing into rucksacks and handbags for parties and train journeys.

Two other cases we ordered, we must confess, mostly so that we could reuse the easy-to-clean bottles for home brewing.

Hopf Helle Weisse (5.3%) is as pale as Erdinger but tastes much better, with a dab of acid making it a full fruit salad (pineapple and pear) rather than a muddy, one-trick banana Angel Delight. We drank the last bottle this week and would happily buy another case.

Finally, there were 20 bottles of Schlenkerla Helles Lagerbier (4.3%) — not actually made with smoked malt but in a thoroughly smoked Bamberg brewery, which adds a subtle autumnal bonfire aroma. Even though they’d travelled a way, and were pretty near bang on their best before, that extra layer of flavour from the smoke made them taste fresh (interesting) even if they weren’t fresh (in peak condition). Better than bottled Pilsner Urquell from Tesco? Maybe.

Does anyone have any suggestions for beers that are good value by the case and will retain their appeal over the course of a long-term relationship?

24 X 440ml cans Ghost Ship cost us £26.99; 12 x 330ml bottles of Adnams’ Jack Brand Innovation cost £18.99; delivery was free through their online store. We ordered the Hopf and Schlenkerla Helles through Beermerchants.com but have misplaced the receipt; they’re currently £2.23 and £2.85 a bottle with a case discount, plus delivery, which sounds about right.

Strong, fruity, wrong and funky

Two beers: Shepherd Neame Christmas Ale and Bateman's Vintage Ale.

Last night, we got round to drinking a couple of strong beers we were sent by Shepherd Neame and Aldi respectively in the run up to Christmas.

In one sense, Shepherd Neame’s Christmas Ale (7%) is a cause for rejoicing: it comes in a proper brown bottle, rather than the clear glass they’ve been using to disastrous effect for the last decade or so. This is a huge turnaround and a ‘positive behaviour’ (thanks, Dr Tanya Byron) we definitely want to encourage.

It’s a shame, then, that the beer itself seemed to be… wrong. There was a whiff of elastic bands when we popped the cap, and it tasted waxy, rubbery and, finally, of slightly singed cardboard. An intriguing minty hop flavour we detected early on passed too quickly and, unfortunately, we only got half way through before giving up.

We’re not huge fans of SN’s beers in general (though we have a soft spot for their porter) but this particular bottle disagreed with us on a level beyond ‘house style’ — a technical issue, perhaps? We won’t write off the beer altogether, though we’d want to wait a few months before trying another from a different batch.

Bateman’s Vintage Ale (7.5%) comes in a cardboard box with a sticker sealing the lid — these apparently, thanks to Fuller’s, are the universal indicators of ‘vintagey-ness’.

On pouring, we were immediately reminded of Black Sheep Progress, another strong ‘special’ from a British regional brewer that we got to try at a tasting do run by Darren ‘Beer Today’ Norbury. Where Progress caused one of our fellow tasters to mention “armpits” in his notes, this beer’s aroma gave us (bear with us) old socks and white cheese rind. The taste was similarly odd, with some savoury vegetal character coming up against a tot of salty, coppery sherry-vinegar.

We didn’t love it, and, no, that doesn’t sound appetising, we admit, but the beer’s not wrong, just funky, in the same way Harvey’s or Adnam’s beers can be. If we drank enough Bateman’s, we could probably get to like it, and it certainly kept us interested, if not delighted, to the end.

Beer Labels are not History Lessons

We’ve talked before about how certain beer descriptors have more than one equally correct meaning depending on context. Most recently, the issue arose again in a conversation about old ale and barley wine.

Those two styles, says Martyn Cornell, are not all that easily distinguished. One contributor thought he’d cracked it, however, when he pointed out that Adnams Old Ale (dark, 4.1%) bears no resemblance whatsoever to, say, Fuller’s Golden Pride (dark amber, 8.5%).

The problem is that Adnams Old Ale is the exact opposite: a mild.

Brewers can call their beers whatever they like. What’s written on the label or pumpclip of a beer today is rarely any help in understanding a beer bearing the same descriptor a hundred years ago. In fact, they can be downright confusing.

Historical (19th c.) Common understanding (what it’s come to mean) US homebrew judging guidance
Old Ale
The aged version of a beer also sold fresh (mild). Possibly strong, but not necessarily (see above): something a bit special; “warming”. Sherry/port flavours, usually dark, 6-9% abv.