We tasted two beers from our end of 2014 wish list last night: BrewDog’s collaboration with Weihenstephan, India Pale Weizen, and a recreation of the fabled Ballantine IPA.
Well, sort of. The latter was not the recent effort released by Pabst, which we’re still desperate to try, but an entirely different beer produced as a collaboration between two US breweries, Stone and Smuttynose. Will it soon be possible to have a bar selling nothing but Ballantine clones? Possibly.
If there’s a theme to this post, it’s old meets new, and the idea of sliding scales. You’ll see what we mean.
India Pale Weizen
6.2%, 330ml, from Red Elephant, Truro; £2.60 at BrewDog’s own online store
With apologies to the ‘all that matters is the taste’ crowd, what got us interested in this beer was the idea of the Scottish upstarts BrewDog collaborating with the centuries-old German brewery Weihenstephan. Our assumption was that they would meet halfway and create the perfect beer for a pair of fence-sitters like us.
If we had to pick one brewery to symbolise everything that’s happened in British beer in the last decade, it would probably be BrewDog. When established breweries decide to ‘do craft’, it is more often that not the boys from Fraserburgh they have in mind:
Fuller's does 'craft' in Hammersmith. Bare brick, neon and exposed filament light bulbs all present and correct. pic.twitter.com/BwQbLzzA9e
“We love the chaos of fast growth,” Mr Watt says. “If we don’t have that, we’re not pushing hard enough… You’ll laugh at me, but we want to list for £1 billion in five years’ time… We’ve got the road map with annual targets. We think it’s an achievable objective.”
As part of the plan, Watt says, the company is maturing, and toning down the combative rhetoric. That’s a relief for boring bastards like us, but we wonder what those who enjoy combative rhetoric will make of it? And where does this fit in?
We also found something extremely appealing about the idea of an off-the-shelf educational tasting session. Like a chemistry set for grown-ups, it encourages the setting aside of a couple of hours, the clearing of a tabletop, and the taking of notes. This is not drinking, but thinking. With drink.
Beer #1: fermented with Pilsen lager yeast
This is a yeast we know reasonably well from our own home brewing experiments but we struggled, at first, to discern its influence in this case. That might be because we have been conditioned to expect that yeast character in weaker, paler beers, and needed to overcome our programming.
Eventually, we did begin to pick out the familiar sulphurous note; something lemony; and then a faint reminder of Parma Violets.
Though they didn’t deliver a huge aroma, we did find that the use of decent amounts of American hops clashed with the yeast, knocking it out of focus.
What we learned: Pilsner Yeast does not seem, as they say, to allow citrusy hops ‘to sing’.
Beer #2: Bavarian weizen yeast
On the odd occasion we have run tasting sessions, German wheat beer has been our go-to to demonstrate the impact of yeast. Its famous banana-clove-bubblegum character is easy to spot and striking. And that is what we expected here.
In fact, we found a grainy, slightly smoky character, with a whack of harsh hoochy alcohol. It wasn’t very pleasant, frankly, and probably wouldn’t help a would-be beer geek to spot this yeast in action in another beer.
What we learned: wheat beer yeast is not much at home in a strong pale ale; and it needs handling properly to make with the bananas.
Beer #3: American ale yeast
This is where we expected Brewdog to shine, and for a brief break from the educational misery. It smelled fantastic, a big leafy fug of Stoned Love rising above the glass.
It tasted, unfortunately, less exciting — plasticky and gritty, like their big Hardcore IPA let down with water.
Three beers in, we were starting to notice a common off-flavour, and wondered if there was a fundamental problem with the base beer.
What we learned: were there actually more hops in this beer than in the others? If not, then it’s easy to see why yeasts like this one are popular with hophead brewers seeking to maximise their impact.
Beer #4: Belgian Trappist yeast
Cor! Though the common dodgy flavour is still just about evident, this was by far the best beer as beer. The yeast is so strident that it stamps all over the hops, pumping out spicy esters and turning the base beer into baked-apples-with-raisins delight.
Well, delight might be a bit strong: it’s not the best Belgian-style beer we’ve had by a long chalk, but really was both a demonstration of what Belgian yeasts do as well as being tasty.
What we learned: ‘Belgian’ is definitely a flavour.
We hope Brewdog do this again but, next time, the base beer needs to be better and, more importantly, plainer. Legendary British brewer Sean ‘Rooster’s’ Franklin has often spoken of pale’n’hoppy beers brewed without dark malts as providing a ‘blank canvas’ for other ingredients, and that’s what was probably needed here.
We also think there’s something jarring about the application of the Brewdog branding to this product. The beers are not exciting or awesome, even though one is very nice, and the Rock Horns rhetoric is misplaced. We’d suggest that, next year, they call the pack Understanding Yeast: practical exercises for the classroom (J. Watt & M. Dickie) and package it in textbook white.
We bought our four-pack as part of an online order from Brewdog’s own store. It cost £9.50 + delivery (around £2.35 per bottle).