Ten years ago, Marks & Spencer stocked a limited range of unexciting beers, generically packaged, with no information about where they had been brewed, or by whom. We would never have imagined then that we would one day be able to order from them a mixed case of four pale ales each designed to showcase a single hop variety.
- Elgood’s Sovereign Golden Ale (5%)
- Crouch Vale Hallertau Brewer’s Gold Golden Ale (4%)
- Castle Rock Cascade Pale Ale (5%)
- Oakham Citra IPA (4.9%).
The labels of all four bottles not only provide all of the essential information you might expect but also a potted history of each hop variety, e.g.:
The brewer’s gold hop was originally developed at Wye College in the UK in 1927 as one of the first ‘higher alpha hops’ and is now mostly grown in the renowned Hallertau region of Bavaria where hop planting dates back to 736AD.
Most casual buyers won’t be terribly interested in that level of detail – they don’t need to know about Wye – but they will pick up the intended message: it’s sophisticated stuff, this beer.
The range isn’t quite a Brewdog-style pseudo-scientific exercise in palate-training: each beer in the M&S range is made by a different brewery to a different recipe, so the hop variety is far from being the only variable in play. Nonetheless, three of the four do a good job of putting the hop to the fore.
Castle Rock’s amber-coloured Cascade IPA reminded us, perhaps unsurprisingly, of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: restrained by modern standards, but citrus-juicy and full-bodied. The Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold has a mellow central European character, lemon-sherbet hoppiness being balanced by bready malt: it would be good by the litre. Oakham Citra is one-dimensional, in a good way, being all about bright, Technicolor tropical fruit flavours and aromas. After each, we felt somewhat better educated.
The dud is the Elgood’s Sovereign. It doesn’t taste bad, as such, but like a beer with a dash of chocolate flavouring in it, presumably from whichever dark malt gives it its red-brown hue. The cheap Easter egg character overwhelmed what is, anyway, a fairly delicately-flavoured hop entirely. Weirdly, in the small print (as Simon pointed out to us) ‘honey flavouring’ is listed as an ingredient. Why is it there? And is it the source of a tacky vanilla essence note? The beer certainly didn’t taste of honey.
We bought our case of twenty 568ml bottles (five of each) from the M&S website where it was on discount from £40 to £36.50, plus £3.50 delivery. UPDATE: we also bought a case of ‘dark beers’ for £40 and have posted some brief tasting notes on our Facebook page.