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.

New to us: Wilde Child Brownie Hunter

A theme is beginning to emerge: when we do find beer from a brewery we don’t already know, based on the available data, it will probably have lactose in it.

We came across this 4.9% choco­late fudge brown­ie stout from Leeds in a can at our local bot­tle shop, Bot­tles & Books, and paid (we think) £5.99 includ­ing a small drink-in sur­charge.

It was nei­ther flat nor a gush­er – a good start – and pro­duced two tidy, tiny glass­es of trans­par­ent bear-brown.

For some­thing billed as a dessert beer, it was fair­ly light-bod­ied, almost thin, with a touch of but­ter­scotch, some vanil­la, and a gen­er­al milk choco­late easy­go­ing nature.

We were remind­ed of:

  1. Mean­time Choco­late Porter – a beer we used to love but which has undoubt­ed­ly been left behind in the fan­cy beer arms race.
  2. Cad­bury’s drink­ing choco­late – the one you drank as a kid, before you realised you were meant to want some­thing either dark­er or rich­er, or both.

Young’s Dou­ble Choco­late is per­haps in sim­i­lar ter­ri­to­ry, but some­how has more heft.

This isn’t quite our thing these days but it cer­tain­ly was­n’t flawed or faulty and we enjoyed drink­ing it.

So that’s anoth­er brew­ery through the first check­point and onto our drink-again list.

Birth of the Beer Can, 1935

In the week that Thornbridge announced it would begin canning beer after years of resistance we happened across an amusing article on the same subject in a 1935 edition of the New Yorker magazine.

It appeared with­out byline in the ‘Talk of the Town’ sec­tion in the issue for 30 Novem­ber and begins like this:

We resigned from the For­eign Legion last week and joined the war between the beer-bot­tle peo­ple and the beer-can peo­ple. It is a lot more fun. We spent the entire week teas­ing bot­tle men about cans, and can men about bot­tles. “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Hop­per, of the Con­ti­nen­tal Can Com­pa­ny, “that glass is a bet­ter insu­la­tor than tin?” “Is it a fact,” we asked Mr. Nor­ring­ton, of the Glass Con­tain­er Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can, “that beer in Con­ti­nen­tal Cans is how beer ought to taste?” “Is it true,” we asked Mr. Odquist, of the Amer­i­can Can Com­pa­ny, “that the use of the can is com­pli­cat­ed by the uncer­tain vicis­si­tudes of inter­na­tion­al trade and ami­ty?” We even called up Rup­pert’s and asked them if it was a fact they were still put beer in fun­ny old-fash­ioned bot­tles, instead of in “keg-lined cans” that have that “fresh from the brew­ery” fla­vor. They got so excit­ed they made us come up to the brew­ery and take a blind­fold test to see if we could tell draught beer from bot­tled beer. We failed, time and time again, time and time again. Gol darn, we’ve had fun late­ly!

Continental Can Company ad, c.1935.
SOURCE: Pin­ter­est, unfor­tu­nate­ly; prob­a­bly from a mag­a­zine like Col­liers which we know ran ads with this copy in 1935.

The arti­cle goes on to describe attempts by the var­i­ous dif­fer­ent can man­u­fac­tur­ers to talk down each oth­ers prod­ucts as resem­bling toma­to tins or oil can­is­ters respec­tive­ly.

Bat­ten, Bar­ton, Durs­tine & Osborn joined on the side of the can, and pre­sent­ed us with twen­ty-three rea­sons it is bet­ter than the bot­tle, includ­ing Rea­son No. 13: “The house­wife is used to the can.”

It was dur­ing this peri­od of intense com­pe­ti­tion, the arti­cle sug­gests, that the ‘stub­by bot­tle’ was invent­ed as the glass answer to the can’s com­pact form, but there were dirty tricks, too:

The can peo­ple, hear­ing that glass men were open­ly brand­ing a can-open­er as a “dead­ly weapon,” devel­oped the “cap-sealed can,” which opens just like a bot­tle. The bot­tle peo­ple, a lit­tle bit sick of some of the extrav­a­gant claims of the tin folk, qui­et­ly placed chemists at work, with a view to show­ing that the can group is a bunch of liars.… It’s hard to know whom to believe. Cham­pi­ons of the can say that light hurts beer. The glass peo­ple say that’s non­sense – heat, not light, hurts beer.

An advert for Keglined cans.
1935 adver­tise­ment for Keg­lined cans. SOURCE:

There’s some sur­pris­ing­ly detailed tech­ni­cal talk about lin­ing for cans, too, designed to pre­vent the beer tast­ing metal­lic, with one man­u­fac­tur­er imply­ing that their lin­ing was sim­i­lar to the resin pitch used in beer kegs, which, as the New York­er glee­ful­ly points out, it real­ly was­n’t.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to read some­thing from a moment when the can had yet to prove itself:

At present, most canned beer is sold in the South; but Con­ti­nen­tal now has a con­tract with Schlitz, and Amer­i­can with Pab­st, so Mil­wau­kee is now begin­ning to can its brew. So far, no New York brew­ery has gone over. Piel’s and Rub­sam & Hor­rmann are blos­som­ing out with “stub­bies,” the new-day bot­tle. The steel indus­try is count­ing on 1,500,000,000 beer cans in 1936.

As we know, the can cer­tain­ly did take off, and after decades of asso­ci­a­tion with the most com­mod­i­fied of com­mod­i­ty beer, has had a strange resur­gence in pop­u­lar­i­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty in just the past decade. And yet more or less the same crit­i­cisms are voiced and the same claims are made – “cools faster” says the 1935 ad above, and that’s still a major sell­ing point today. It’s a sign of the times, though, that dis­pos­abil­i­ty, a key ben­e­fit in 1935, has been replaced on the check­list with recy­cla­bil­i­ty in 2018.

For more infor­ma­tion the devel­op­ment of beer can­ning in the US check out Keg­lined, an entire web­site ded­i­cat­ed to that very sub­ject. Main image adapt­ed from this scan by ‘Bil­ly’ at Flickr.

St Austell Cornish Saison for M&S

Marks & Spencer, the slightly upmarket English supermarket-stroke-department-store, has been doing interesting things with its beer range for a few years now but the idea of a Cornish-brewed Saison really grabbed our interest.

It’s pro­duced for them by St Austell, a brew­ery very much on our trust­ed list, and has evolved from an orig­i­nal small-batch brew designed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with beer writer Melis­sa Cole. It has 5.9% ABV, comes in a cute pur­ple 330ml can, and costs £2. (Or less as part of the cur­rent four-for-the-price-of-three pro­mo­tion.)

But is it a bar­gain, or do we have a Hather­wood sit­u­a­tion on our hands?

Saison in the glass with can nearby.

It is per­fect­ly, almost aston­ish­ing­ly clear in the glass, with a decent head of foam that stops short of Bel­gian volu­mi­nous­ness. (Per­haps it’s hard­er to achieve the nec­es­sary pres­sure in cans.)

On tast­ing, the mod­el is clear: it is an homage to Sai­son Dupont, which is fine by us. There’s the same famil­iar spici­ness from the yeast and the same gold­en colour. It isn’t a slav­ish clone, though: this beer is clean­er, more bit­ter, and seemed to have a lot more orange peel and corian­der char­ac­ter.

In fact by the end of the glass we were won­der­ing if it might not almost be described as a kind of Kristall Wit – that is, an appli­ca­tion of the fil­ter­ing tech­nique used to clar­i­fy cer­tain wheat beers in Ger­many to the spici­er, more cit­rusy Bel­gian equiv­a­lent.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing, very enjoy­able beer that could eas­i­ly pass for some­thing gen­uine­ly Bel­gian. (We know St Austel­l’s head brew­er, Roger Ryman, is a Bel­gian beer fanat­ic.) So, yes, that means it’s good val­ue, and we’ll cer­tain­ly be buy­ing some more next time we pass a branch of M&S.

In gen­er­al, we do like how M&S pack­ages its own-brand beers these days. Quite apart from the cool and colour­ful graph­ic design they’re (a) clear­ly iden­ti­fied as own-brand but (b) with clear infor­ma­tion about who brews them. That means we can make an informed choice about which to take a chance on (Oakham, Adnams, St Austell) and which to avoid (sor­ry, Hogs Back).

Checking in On Wylam and Northern Monk

Last year we hatched a grand plan to try beers that other bloggers named in their Christmas 2016 Golden Pints posts. That didn’t quite come off but did prompt us, eventually, to revisit Wylam and Northern Monk.

We bought the fol­low­ing beers from Beer Ritz with the sup­port of Patre­on sub­scribers like Alec Lath­am and Will Jor­dan – thanks, folks!

  • North­ern Monk Hea­then, 440ml can, £4.16
  • North­ern Monk Man­go Las­si Hea­then, 440ml can, £4.87
  • Wylam Table Beer, 330ml bot­tle, £2.51
  • Wylam Sweet­leaf IPA, 440ml can, £4.50
  • Wylam Slack Jaw IPA, 330ml bot­tle, £3.12

Hea­then IPA was one of the spe­cif­ic beers on the Gold­en Pints mas­ter list, described by Simon Girt (@LeedsBeerWolf) as hav­ing ‘con­sis­tent, dank, juicy appeal’. In its big, colour­ful can it cer­tain­ly looked excit­ing and entic­ing. Pale and hazy, our first reac­tion was, oof, onion soup! The body is vel­vety and milky, even creamy, with a chew­able cal­ci­um tablet qual­i­ty. Beyond the onion we got weed, armpits, and the stink of over­ripe fruit sit­ting in the sun. It’s not our kind of thing, espe­cial­ly at 7.2% ABV, but is one of the bet­ter exam­ples of this kind of beer we’ve encoun­tered – as clean and pre­cise as the style per­mits.

Mango Lassi IPA.
It’s near-rela­tion, Man­go Las­si Hea­then, smelled much more appeal­ing – sweet and sum­mery, all pop art and show­er gel. It con­tains real man­go but does­n’t taste ‘flavoured’. It too is milky with a del­i­cate yogurt acid­i­ty of such sub­tle­ty that we might even have com­plete­ly imag­ined it based on the beer’s name. There is a lime-peel kick, too, which brings to mind beach-side cock­tails. It is full of fizz and prick­le and, for us, eas­i­er drink­ing than straight Hea­then, albeit not quite as excit­ing or out­landish as the name promis­es. And, ouch, that price tag. (This one was a 2016 Gold­en Pints pick from the Beer­nomi­con pod­cast AKA @Beernomicon.)

We should say that, over­all, we feel quite warm towards North­ern Monk, whose core beers are among the most reli­able and best val­ue around. If you like this type of beer, you’ll prob­a­bly like these par­tic­u­lar beers. If you don’t, they won’t con­vert you.

Wylam DH.

These next three weren’t on any spe­cif­ic Gold­en Pints lists but Wylam gen­er­al­ly did well and through­out 2017 seemed to buzz away in the back­ground, qui­et­ly impress­ing peo­ple, so we reck­on it’s a brew­ery that war­rants fre­quent check-ins.

DH Table Beer, which offered a pleas­ing inver­sion of a famil­iar nar­ra­tive. At only 3.5% ABV and with a mere three months to run on the best before count­down we expect­ed it to be knack­ered and thus earn us some ‘drink fresh’ rep­ri­mands; but, in real­i­ty, it could hard­ly have tast­ed fresh­er – as if they’d some­how cap­tured and pack­aged a spring breeze as it passed over a field of young grass. It’s an inter­est­ing beer, too – lemo­ny, coconut­ty and very dry, with a quirky Bel­gian yeast char­ac­ter that brings to mind the weak­est of the Chi­may’s or Elu­sive’s won­der­ful Plan‑B. Per­haps the long shelf-life is explained by the high bit­ter­ness, which in turn seems to be pleas­ing­ly soft­ened by the light haze. It is per­haps a touch too raw and rus­tic but what it is not is bor­ing, or stale, or dull, or dirty. We’d drink this again.

Slack­jaw IPA was, by con­trast, rather a dis­ap­point­ment. Is it sup­posed to taste a touch salty, and have that faint sour­ness? Beyond that, even at a mere 6%, it tastes like a dark dou­ble IPA of the 2007 school in which caramel malts and hops com­bine to sug­gest straw­ber­ry jam. It was pass­able, cer­tain­ly drink­able, and red fruit plus acid­i­ty did add up to a cer­tain fresh­ly-squeezed qual­i­ty. We sus­pect age and pack­ag­ing prob­lems might have dulled its edge and will cer­tain­ly give it anoth­er chance, espe­cial­ly if we encounter it on tap.

Final­ly there came Sweet Leaf, a big, mod­ern IPA (7.4%) in a big, mod­ern can. Yel­low and cloudy it cer­tain­ly looked the part and threw up a won­der­ful orna­men­tal gar­den aro­ma of fleshy flow­ers and strange fruit. The flavour com­bi­na­tion – green onion and sweet pineap­ple – did­n’t quite work for us but was cer­tain­ly dis­tinc­tive. A bit of dirt­i­ness in the after­taste was also dis­tract­ing. Over­all, though, it would seem to be anoth­er sol­id exam­ple of the style of the day, and might be just the thing for palates fatigued by excess­es of cit­rus.

Wylam, then, stay in about the same place on our men­tal rank­ings: capa­ble of great things, but lack­ing the pol­ish and reli­a­bil­i­ty of, say, Thorn­bridge.