BWOASA: Bear Essentials Barley Wine

Barley wine on a bookshelf

A canned 13% bar­ley wine with rasp­ber­ries and vanil­la at £5.99 for 330ml? If we weren’t engaged in this BWOASA mis­sion for April, we’d have gone nowhere near.

A col­lab­o­ra­tion between Aberdeen’s Fierce and New­port’s Tiny Rebel, Bear Essen­tials turned up at Bot­tles & Books, our local craft booza­to­ri­um.

We drank it at home last night, approach­ing with some ner­vous­ness. This is where the twist is sup­posed to come, right? Well…

We did­n’t real­ly like it. It was strong, but tast­ed thin. It was com­plex and weird, but not in a way that pleased us – a jum­ble rather than a cav­al­cade.

Specifics: it was red, had low car­bon­a­tion and a loose head, and smelled like Bakewell tart. The sug­ges­tion of almond and bis­cuit base car­ried through into the flavour, joined by a sub­tle mouth-tight­en­ing sour­ness, and a heavy lay­er of vanil­la.

White choco­late stout? Pas­try Fram­boise? Maybe. Bar­ley wine? Only because the label said so. Noth­ing about the look, tex­ture or flavour sug­gest­ed any con­nec­tion to Gold­en Pride or Gold Label.

So what does bar­ley wine sig­nal in a craft beer con­text? High alco­holic strength, sweet­ness, and the absence of either hops or roast­ed flavours, we think.

BWOASA: Fuller’s comes through

Fuller's barley wine.

After our depth-testing was a bit of a failure last week, we were starting to get really worried: was this going to be a month of posts about the absence of barley wine, old ale and strong ale?

Then we realised there was at least one safe bet: Fuller’s.

The Old Fish Mar­ket isn’t a pub we’re mad keen on, tend­ing to the busi­nesslike in terms of atmos­phere, though it does the job from time to time when we want a fix of one of our favourite Lon­don brew­eries.

Cru­cial­ly, we also know it car­ries both Gold­en Pride and 1845 in bot­tles, and so on Fri­day night, before Ray caught a train to Lon­don, in we went for a bot­tle of each, with a chas­er of ESB.

We don’t drink Gold­en Pride often, per­haps once every cou­ple of years. There’s a lin­ger­ing sense in our minds that it’s a bit… trashy, maybe? It’s not bot­tle-con­di­tioned, it’s less com­plex than some oth­er Fuller’s strong ales, and has a less inter­est­ing back­sto­ry. Which is why a mis­sion like this is help­ful in focus­ing the mind: it’s a great beer, and we’re lucky it still exists.

Cop­per-coloured and jew­el-like, it deliv­ered every­thing we expect from the ide­al bar­ley wine: sweet­ness, fruiti­ness, rich­ness. Sher­ry, fruit­cake, dates and prunes. Gold­en syrup, hon­ey and brown sug­ar. An avalanche of mar­malade.

Again, we found our­selves won­der­ing where the bound­ary between this type of beer and old-school dou­ble IPA might lie. Per­haps side-by-side the dis­tinc­tion would be clear­er.

Any­way, yes, here it is – the offi­cial stan­dard ref­er­ence bar­ley wine, against which oth­ers should be judged.

* * *

We used to love 1845, the clas­sic bot­tle-con­di­tioned strong ale, but appar­ent­ly we’ve grown apart.

Per­haps it was the close com­par­i­son to Gold­en Pride but, even at 6.3%, it seemed thin, harsh and unpleas­ant­ly earthy. As it warmed up, it gained some weight, and the bit­ter­ness fell back into some­thing like bal­ance, but it lacked fruiti­ness.

Its main effect was to make us real­ly, real­ly want a pint of ESB.

* * *

We’re lucky to have ESB, too. At its best – and on Fri­day, it was at its best – it’s a beer that brings the depth and den­si­ty of a nip-bot­tle-sip­per into the pub pint glass.

Even after drink­ing Gold­en Pride at 8.5%, ESB at 5.5 tast­ed chewy, charm­ing and lus­cious. You know the flavours but, just in case: mar­malade, fruit­cake, mild spice, cher­ry and orange zest. Hot cross buns per­haps sums it up.

Maybe this is why we don’t drink Gold­en Pride more often – because ESB pro­vides 80% of the plea­sure with far less boozy inten­si­ty, while still feel­ing like a spe­cial treat.

* * *

We float­ed out of the OFM quite hap­py, feel­ing that we were final­ly on the right track.

Old ale, strong ale and barley wine for April

Gold Label Barley Wine.

We decided to immerse ourselves in a single beer style for April and asked our Patreon subscribers to choose which one. They, the bastards, went for strong ale, barley wine, or old ale.

What this means in prac­tice is that we’re going to make an effort to go to pubs where we think these styles will be on offer, rather than retreat­ing to the safe­ty of lager and bit­ter at our usu­al haunts, and will order them wher­ev­er avail­able.

We’ve giv­en our­selves plen­ty of room for manoeu­vre: any­thing over 5.5% counts as ‘strong’; and if it’s badged as old ale, strong ale or bar­ley wine, regard­less of spec, it’s in scope.

But IPAs are out – this is all about the malt.

But its spring! you cry. Well, it’s rain­ing right now, and it usu­al­ly snows in April, so we’ll see who has the last laugh.

We’ll also be try­ing to read about these kinds of beers, per­haps putting togeth­er one of our vir­tu­al antholo­gies as we go.

What we’re hop­ing to achieve is:

  • under­stand­ing this style, or these styles, a bit bet­ter
  • try­ing some new beers
  • revis­it­ing some old clas­sics
  • find­ing at least one pub in Bris­tol that still sells Gold Label
  • reset­ting our abil­i­ty to dis­cern hops ready for when May rolls around.

Tips, ideas and sug­ges­tions wel­come, and do feel free to join in.

Treat Yo Self

Barley wine and imperial ipa in glasses.

We can’t go to Falmouth without finishing up in Hand Bar for ‘something silly’. This time, it was Evil Twin’s Molotov Cocktail Imperial IPA, and Lervig Barley Wine.

We crammed quite a lot into 24hrs in Corn­wal­l’s beeri­est town, try­ing as we were to make the most of a short week­end. We had a ses­sion in The Front, for starters: Rebel 80 Shilling seems to be con­sis­tent­ly great these days, and is per­fect for this weath­er; and feel­ing our way round the Black Flag range, we con­clud­ed that they’ve grad­u­at­ed from faint­ly dodgy to gen­er­al­ly enjoy­able and inter­est­ing. Then on Sat­ur­day, with big break­fasts and fan­cy cof­fee inside us, we head­ed to Beer­wolf for our fix of Up Coun­try beer – the clas­sic that is Mar­ble Pint – and had anoth­er chance to con­sid­er a beer of the year con­tender, Pen­zance Brew­ing Co’s Hop­ti­mys­tic. Not as good this time but still allur­ing and mys­te­ri­ous.

Then, with the evening draw­ing in, slight­ly mer­ry, we wan­dered up the hill to Hand. Since our last vis­it sev­er­al huge new fridges have been installed on the cus­tomer side of the bar mean­ing that it’s eas­i­er to browse – and to be tempt­ed by – all the pret­ty bot­tles and cans. Boak’s mis­sion was to have some­thing super hop­py, jam­my and chewy, like those crys­tal-malt-laden Amer­i­can IPAs we used to enjoy at The Rake in Lon­don. Evil Twin’s leapt out at us for no oth­er rea­son than it said IMPERIAL INDIA PALE ALE very clear­ly right on the front of the label. (Design­ers, take note.) But it had no price tag.

How much is this one?’ Boak asked war­i­ly.

The bar­man checked. ‘Er… that one is eight pounds nine­ty.’ He could­n’t help but sound apolo­getic.

The small crowd of stu­dent drinkers sit­ting on sofas behind us gasped. ‘Is that the drink-in price?’ one asked.

Yes, it’s a fiv­er to take­away.’

Hmm,’ said Boak. ‘If I’m spend­ing nine quid on a beer… Is it actu­al­ly good?’

The bar­man squirmed. ‘Um, I’ve not actu­al­ly had that – it’s only just gone on.’ He appealed to the audi­ence. ‘Have any of you guys had the Molo­tov Cock­tail?’

No – who brews it? Evil Twin! Then it’ll def­i­nite­ly be good. All their beers are great.’

Nine quid. Nine!

Sod it, let’s do it.’

Ide­al­ly, for the sake of a sat­is­fy­ing nar­ra­tive, we would dis­cov­er at this point that the beer was either absolute­ly dread­ful, thus inval­i­dat­ing the entire con­cept of ‘craft beer’ and expos­ing as fools all who drink it; or aston­ish­ing­ly won­der­ful, caus­ing us to re-eval­u­ate our entire atti­tude to beer or some­thing. But this isn’t Jack­anory and it was mere­ly very good. We Tweet­ed that it was ‘sexy’ which was an attempt to cap­ture a cer­tain super­fi­cial wow fac­tor – that it looked gor­geous (faint­ly hazy orange) and smelled exact­ly like the moment when you put hops into boil­ing wort, which is to say green­er and more pun­gent than how hops usu­al­ly express them­selves in the fin­ished prod­uct. The first sips were intense, rich and mouth-coat­ing and trig­gered mem­o­ries of sweet pipe tobac­co, weed and forests. But the fire­works sub­sided too quick­ly and it did­n’t earn either its price or its boozi­ness.

This is a thing we’ve debat­ed with peo­ple a few times: in our view, if a beer is 13% ABV it ought to demand to be drunk slow­ly and bring the plea­sure of sev­er­al ‘nor­mal’ beers. Oth­ers hold the view that the pin­na­cle of the brew­er’s art is to make a strong beer that drinks like a weak one. We like Duv­el, it’s true, part of the fun of which is that it’s eas­i­er to drink than it ought to be thanks to its fizz and light­ness, but gen­er­al­ly we think that unless you are on a mis­sion to get blad­dered as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, why not just actu­al­ly drink a weak­er beer?

In this par­tic­u­lar case, we reck­on there are quite a few oth­er IPAs – mere­ly dou­ble rather than impe­r­i­al – that would have deliv­ered much the same plea­sure at low­er cost, and with less booze. As it was, it was too easy to knock back, each swig rep­re­sent­ing the bet­ter part of a quid as it flew down the throat.

Per­haps Molo­tov was sab­o­taged by its run­ning mate. Lervig Bar­ley Wine was 12.5% and tast­ed like it in the most won­der­ful way, inhab­it­ing the space between win­ter warmer and dessert wine. It felt mature, deep, and com­plex, like a tour through the dark­est cor­ner of the store cup­board where molasses sit next to a crusty bot­tle of sher­ry from sev­er­al Christ­mases ago, and choco­late strict­ly for cook­ing. It was impos­si­ble to drink quick­ly: a third last­ed near­ly an hour and, even though this was sup­posed to be a just-the-one vis­it, demand­ed a fol­low up. It was­n’t cheap – £4.50 a third, i.e. £13.50 a pint – but, seri­ous­ly, who drinks bar­ley wine by the pint? Nine quid spent on 380ml of this beer did feel like good val­ue.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 5 November 2016: ‘Chavs’, Antics and Dirty Tricks

Oof, it’s a big one today, taking in everything from sabotage anti-marketing to the origins of Gold Label barley wine.

John Holmes of the Sheffield Alco­hol Research Group has writ­ten on his pri­vate blog about the trou­bling impli­ca­tions of an updat­ed take on Hog­a­rth’s ‘Gin Lane’:

The mod­ern pas­tiche gives us an obese moth­er, mouth wide open, burg­er in one hand and phone in the oth­er while her baby shares her chips. The baby is in a one­sie with ears while the moth­er is dressed in leop­ard-print leg­gings and a top so small that only anatom­i­cal­ly-dubi­ous draw­ing pro­tects her decen­cy. In com­bi­na­tion, these styl­is­tic choic­es seem designed to define the woman as, for want of a bet­ter word, a ‘chav’ and it is hard to escape the sense that we are intend­ed to both judge and blame her for being in a dis­gust­ing state and, worse, for inflict­ing the same des­tiny on her young child.


Detail from Bourbon County label.
SOURCE: Goose Island, via Chica­go Tri­bune.

Josh Noel at the Chica­go Tri­bune, author of a book about Goose Island brew­ery, was­n’t sat­is­fied with the vague­ness around the ori­gin date of Bour­bon Coun­ty Stout and did some dig­ging which proved that brew­eries are often the worst sources when it comes to their own his­to­ries:

Leg­end says that the industry’s first stout aged in a bour­bon bar­rel was ini­tial­ly tapped in 1992, at Goose Island’s Clybourn Avenue brew­pub… Even the bot­tles say it, right there in the brown glass, between the words BOURBON and COUNTY — ‘Since 1992.’… But on the eve of this year’s release, I’ve con­clud­ed that there’s almost no chance that Bour­bon Coun­ty Stout came into this world in 1992. Dozens of inter­views and hours of research point to the first keg of Bour­bon Coun­ty Stout being tapped in 1995.


The Ravensbourne Arms.

Lon­don-based pub group Antic is fas­ci­nat­ing and weird­ly opaque – we’ve nev­er man­aged to get them to respond to queries by email or Tweet for starters. For 853, a web­site about local issues in South East Lon­don, Dar­ryl writes about their weird antics (heh) with regard to the Ravens­bourne Arms in Lewisham and how the col­lapse of local jour­nal­ism has removed a key ele­ment of scruti­ny:

Lewisham Coun­cil grant­ed plan­ning per­mis­sion for flats above the Ravens­bourne Arms as well as devel­op­ment of sur­round­ing land twice, in 2014 and August 2015… The appli­ca­tions don’t men­tion the pub itself, but this should have rung alarm bells. Hous­ing above pubs can be a way of secur­ing the future of a venue (the new Cat­ford Bridge Tav­ern will have flats above it). But such devel­op­ments are also a very good way for devel­op­ers to shut down the pub itself – these are cas­es that demand vig­i­lance… The appli­cant was giv­en as “Antic Lon­don”. There is no com­pa­ny of this name reg­is­tered at Com­pa­nies House in the UK, nor in Jer­sey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 5 Novem­ber 2016: ‘Chavs’, Antics and Dirty Tricks”