News, Nuggets & Longreads 21 January 2017: Bucharest, SIBA, Tasting Beer

This week we have been reading various bits of what may or may not be clickbait, notes on beers from Romania and Norway, and ponderings on the nature of taste. There’s also been some less sexy but nonetheless important industry news.

For the Guardian Victoria Coren-Mitchell expressed a seldom-heard point of view: pubs are terrible and beer is disgusting. This caused some irritation either because the very idea struck people as offensive, or because they perceived it as a deliberate attempt to bait beer- and pub-lovers for the sake of driving traffic. We were just interested to find put into words (with humorous intent, by the way) how a lot of people must feel:

People really love the pub. I say people. I mean my husband. Nothing makes my husband happier than settling down in the corner of some reeky-carpeted local boozing house for a good old sit. Maybe a chat. And, obviously, a beer. A sit and a chat and a beer. Beer and a chat and a sit. Sit, chat, beer. Chat, sit, beer. Sit, sit, beer beer, chat chat chat, sit sit sit… And nothing else is happening! It’s a different matter if you’re having some lunch or playing a pub quiz; that makes sense. I’m happy if there are board games or a pool table… But just sitting there, doing nothing, just slurping away at a beer and waiting for the occasional outbreak of chat: this is the pastime of choice for literally millions of people!


Beer O'Clock, Bucharest.

The Beer Nut has been on holiday again, this time in Bucharest, Romania, and has done his usual thorough job of tracking down all the beer of note from supermarket lagers to brewpub IPAs:

[The] other Hop Hooligans IPA, by the name of Shock Therapy… looks the same as the beer next to it, except for that handsome mane of pure white foam. It doesn’t smell fruity, though; it smells funky: part dank, part old socks. That’s how it tastes too, with a kind of cheesiness that I don’t think is caused by old hops. When I look up the varieties I discover that Waimea and Rakau are the guilty parties, and I’m not surprised. I’ve picked up an unpleasant funk from those high-end Kiwi hops before

Part 1: Craft Beer
Part 2: Big Indies/Contract Brewers
Part 3: Mainstream Brands

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Discomfort Beer — Saison, Tripel, Brett and Kriek

‘Access01’ by David Bleasdale from Flickr under Creative Commons.

These are our instructions from Alec Latham, the host of this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree:

‘For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.’

The example Alec gives in his own post is Thornbridge Wild Raven, the first black IPA he’d ever tried, and in the broadest terms, there’s the answer: any new style will probably wrong-foot you the first time you come across it. You might even say the same of entire national brewing traditions.

‘Discomfort’ is an interesting word for Alec to choose because the feeling we think he’s describing is as much social anxiety as it is purely about the beer: other people like this, but I don’t — am I being stupid? Am I missing something?

Partizan Lemongrass Saison.

We grappled with saison for years, for example. Michael Jackson wrote about it so eloquently and enthusiastically, as did Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn, and many others, but we didn’t get it. How could we match up those tantalising tasting notes with the fizzy Lucozade beers we kept finding in Belgian bars in London? Maybe the experts were just wrong — a worrying thought. We could have simply given up but we kept trying until something clicked. Now we not only understand saison (with, say, 65 per cent confidence) but also know which particular ones we do and don’t like.

Over the years we’ve been similarly disgusted or nonplussed by Belgian tripels, specifically Chimay White which just tasted to us like pure alcohol back in 2003; and also by Brettanomyces-influenced beers — Harvey’s Imperial, now one of our favourites, appalled us the first few times we tried it, and Orval left us cold until quite recently. (We are now fanpersons.)

In each case, the discomfort was worth it, like practising a musical instrument until your fingers hurt, because it opened up options and left us with a wider field of vision.

The flipside to Alec’s proposition, of course, is that some beers are immediately appealing but perhaps become tarnished with experience. The first time we were ever dragged to an obscure pub by an excited friend it was to drink Timmerman’s fruit beers from Belgium which we now find almost too sweet to bear. Comfort turns to discomfort, delight to queasiness.

The sense of taste is an unstable, agile, mischievous thing that you can never quite tame.

What is a Twang?

Judge with beer.

Ever had a beer with a twang to it? A quality so subtle it transcends language?

The other week in Birmingham we ploughed through many issues of the highly entertaining and partisan Licensed Trade News. In the issue for 10 December 1904 we found this story taken from the Daily Telegraph with some added commentary, recounting events at Southwark Police Court on (we think) 6 December that year.

A publican who was sued at Southwark for beer supplied said he returned some of the stuff because it was very poor.

Judge Addison: How did you judge of that?

Defendant: I am a practical brewer.

Judge Addison: But did you judge it by its taste, because that is the way I should test it? (Laughter.)

Defendant: Yes, and there was a ‘twang’ about it.

Judge Addison: That is something we object to in people’s voices. (Laughter.) What do you mean by a ‘twang’ in beer?

Defendant: It left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

Judge Addison: That is what good beer does if you take too much – at least, that is what I am told. (Laughter.)

Defendant: I thought it had a tendency to acidity.

Judge Addison: But what is this ‘twang’?

Defendant: Well, it did not go down easy. (Laughter.)

Judge Addison: I suppose beer does not go down easy if you do not like it. (Laughter.) It goes down easy enough if you do like it.

Defendant: If beer is palatable it goes down easy. (Laughter.)

Judge Addison: Yes, with most of us. (Laughter.)

Defendant: You can’t drink a lot of it when it has got a ‘twang’.

Judge Addison: But why; What is this ‘twang’? If I had some here I could sample it for myself. (Laughter.)

Defendant: Well, it has an unpleasant taste.

Counsel: The ‘twang’, your honour, is so subtle that it transcends language.

Whatever would [temperance campaigner] Sir Wilfrid Lawson say if the Judge put his very practical suggestion of testing the beer by taste into fact, and there and then quaffed some glorious or inglorious beer as the sequel might prove in the fierce light of a police court? One thing is certain, viz., that Judge Addison is perfectly satisfied that it should be known that in the words of the old ditty he

‘Likes a drop of good beer.’

A few observations:

  1. The publican is an advocate of easy-drinking session beer, evidently.
  2. Said publican could do to go on an off-flavour identification course.
  3. Judge Addison doesn’t believe in tasting with eyes alone. Wise.
  4. His Judginess was right to challenge the word twang: did the publican actually mean tang? That would chime with his mention of acidity.
  5. Look at tasting notes all over Untappd/Ratebeer — twang remains a popular word!
  6. Either His Judgeworthiness had funny bones or this audience was easily pleased. (Laughter.)

News, Nuggets & Longreads 23 April 2016 — Takeovers, Spruce, Helles

Here’s what’s grabbed our attention in beer news and writing in the last week, from spruce beer to brewery takeovers, via brewery takeovers and, er, more brewery takeovers…

→ Let’s get AB-InBev’s acquisition spree out of the way first: Italian website Cronache di Birra broke the news yesterday that the global giant as acquired Birra del Borgo. Here’s the most incisive commentary so far:

→ Related: remember when we pondered what it must feel like to sell your brewery? Well, we’ve now been treated to two substantial pieces in which the founders of breweries absorbed by AB-InBev reflect on the experience. First, Jasper Cuppaidge of Camden Town was interviewed by Susannah Butter for the Evening Standard, perhaps expressing more insecurity than he intended or realised:

“Everyone has their opinions. We’re more craft than ever because that gives us the ability to brew more beer ourselves. The beer tastes as good as last week, if not better. Some people want to remain independent but it’s like, Mike there wears Converse, I like Vans. Everyone has their cool thing.”

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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.

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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.

Drink It Until You Like It

In his essay ‘The Man Who Ate Everything’ Jeffrey Steingarten argues that (a) food critics really cannot claim authority if they have aversions to particular ingredients; and (b) that such aversions, should they exist, can be fairly easily overcome.

When it comes to beer there are people who don’t like lager, or find stout too intense, or think hoppy IPAs ‘taste like a mouthful of soap‘. Some people just don’t like beer full stop. There’s nothing wrong with that — people ought to drink what they enjoy drinking — but those who have a niggling sense that they’re missing out could try Steingarten’s method:

We come into the world with a yen for sweets… and a weak aversion to bitterness, and after four months develop a fondness for salt… And that’s about it. Everything else is learned. Newborns are not repelled even by the sight and smell of putrefied meat crawling with maggots… Most parents give up trying novel foods on their weanlings after two or three attempts and then complain to the pediatrician; this may be the most common cause of fussy eaters and finicky adults — of omnivores manqués. Most babies will accept nearly anything after eight or ten tries.

With that principle in mind, after eating each on ten or so different occasions, Steingarten grew to love kimchi (Korean pickle), clams, anchovies, and various other foodstuffs that had previously made him turn green. In most cases, it seems that exposure wasn’t really the key — it was actually forcing himself to eat enough examples that he eventually happened upon a good one — but the message is the same: keep trying.

For this to work in weaning you on to a beer style of which you are sceptical you would, like Steingarten, have to genuinely want to get to like it. If you are determined to resist because, for example, not liking lager is a dogmatic position rather than really a matter of taste, it wouldn’t make any difference.

You might also, we suppose, use the same technique to increase your tolerance for extremes of bitterness, sweetness, sourness, booziness, yeastiness, or whatever characteristic it is in general that you find challenging in beer.

But it probably won’t help you learn to love a beer that is just, at it’s core, a bit shit.

We’re not quite sure of the publication history of the essay: it’s dated 1989 and 1996 in the book of the same name so we think it must have appeared in Vogue in 1989. You can read it in full on the New York Times website.

Bottled Milds 2: The Midlands

This time, we tasted three bottled milds from Dudley, Nottingham and Wolverhampton, the latter from both can and bottle.

The Midlands is a part of the UK where (in our admittedly limited experience) mild still feels alive — where ‘pubby’ pubs seem to have one on draught and might even offer a choice of different brands, or different types of mild. (See Barm’s 2014 account of exploring ‘England’s Franconia‘ for more on this.)

Unfortunately — or, actually, maybe we mean fortunately? — lots of Midlands milds are cask beers by definition and either don’t seem to make it into bottles, or the bottles are hard to come by. The selection we managed to scrape together includes something from the supermarket mainstream, a mild with something of a cult reputation, and an outlying ‘crafty’-looking beer that isn’t sure exactly what it is.

We purchased all of these from Beers of Europe online:

  • Banks’s Mild (can, 3.5%, £1.49, 500ml)
  • Bank’s Mild (bottle, 3.5%, £1.69, 500ml)
  • Holden’s Black Country Mild (£2.09, 3.7%, £2.09, 500ml)
  • Blue Monkey 99 Red Baboons (£2.99, 4.2%, 500ml)

Taking them in order of ABV, we started with Banks’s (part of the Marston’s empire but still brewed in Wolverhampton, as far as we can tell) and decided to drink the can and bottle side by side in pint glasses.

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‘Beer Gets the Connoisseur Treatment’, 1968

For the Observer Magazine published on 7 July 1968, Cyril Ray (who we wrote about yesterday) assembled a crack team to taste beer.

Cover of The Observer Magazine, 7 July, 1968.The tone of the feature as a whole is a little uncertain: Mr Ray’s text argues that beer is really worthy of respect only to be undercut by an illustration (Watney’s pale in a wine basket) and sub-headline (borrowed for this post) which suggest there is something faintly ridiculous in the exercise.

Because he didn’t think it would be fair to ask professional tasters from brewery quality control departments to take part, he recruited Michael Broadbent, head of the wine department at Christie’s auctioneers, and Douglas Young, a professional tea-taster.

Michal Broadbent learned after a couple of lagers… to taste in mouthfuls rather than in his customary sips, realising that beer is meant to be quaffed, and that this is how it best shows its character. Douglas Young was soon isolating specific characteristics of each beer, and asking the brewer who looked after us, in Whitbread’s hospitable tasting-room, for the brewers’ phraseology with which to define them.

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Malty

Unlike some (Melissa Cole, p6; Mark Dredge), we don’t object to the use of the terms ‘malty’ and ‘hoppy’ as over-arching descriptors, but one thing does bug us: ‘malty’ shouldn’t just mean ‘not hoppy’.

Malt flavour is a positive addition to the flavour of a beer, giving it another dimension. The best hoppy beers — that is, those with a pronounced flowery hop aroma and/or bitterness — also have malt flavour, usually sneaking up as a bonus in the finish.

These are the kind of things we think of (no doubt via Michael Jackson and others) when we spot that taste:

  • toasted nuts and seeds
  • fresh bread
  • crackers

It’s dry as in crisp, savoury but not salty, and just downright wholesome.

The best of the lagers we mentioned yesterday all have veritable maltiness, as do many of the pale-n-hoppy c.4% cask ales at which North of England breweries seem to excel. Our local equivalent, Potion 9 at the Star Inn, is defined by bright citrusy hops, but it’s that bread-crust and cream cracker snap that ultimately makes it so satisfying — the bun without which a burger wouldn’t be half as enjoyable.

A beer with fairly restrained hop character might allow the malt to take centre stage, and that can be good too.

But some beers aren’t hoppy or malty — they’re just sugary, gritty, vegetal or (worst of all) watery.

Don’t blame malt for that.