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.

Magical Mystery Pour #32: Gun Brewery Zamzama IPA

This is the last of the mini-series of Sussex beers from a selection suggested by Rach Smith of Look at Brew (@lookatbrew) and it’s a 6.5% IPA.

We bought our can of Zamzama online from South Down Cellars for £2.70 plus delivery and it has been sat in our fridge since arriving a couple of months ago. Rach says:

Gun beers have become some of my favourites over the past couple of years, not just among Sussex beers, but overall. I think the Sussex spring water that’s used may help with that! The modern and often creative beers are flying the flag for contemporary Sussex brews and breaking out of the region. This is the boldest beer in the core range, and drinks with a huge profile of pineapple, mango and lychee, with a spicy kick and toffee to round it all off.

Zamzama IPA in the glass.

It came out of the can a slightly hazy gold, throwing up a lot of enticing orange peel aroma, and with plenty of carbonation. (See photo above.) Pouring what was left in the can nudged it from hazy to cloudy but didn’t seem to much change the flavour.

Rach mentioned pineapple, mango and lychee; our first gulps suggested passion fruit. But in the world of tasting notes, same difference, really. Sweet, vibrant, sticky tropical fruit is the point.

We were delighted by how clean it tasted — no staleness, no cardboard, not a wheelbarrow full of muddy onions, just a lot of Jaffa Cake jelly and jam, balanced by a rye bread bitterness in the background. Cans can be a lottery but this time it worked.

It’s perhaps more of a 2010 beer than a 2017 one — the kind of thing we remember drinking at The Rake in Borough Market in the form of expensive American imports — but that’s fine by us.

It is sweet and Ribena-like, though, and we’d perhaps like a touch more bitterness, but that’s not a fault, just a preference.

If you like juicy, fruity, Technicolor beers but find too many of the most feted examples excessively dirty and savoury, as we do, then consider giving this one a go.

We’d like to thank Rach again for choosing beers and providing notes, and apologise for having made a bit of mess of the buying process. We’re going to think about who to invite next but have a few ideas bubbling away already.

QUICK ONE: Tinnies in the Pub

Stella Artois advertising c.2007.

Some might regard the sale of canned big brewery lager in pubs as a bad sign but there is a definite silver lining.

This year, we’ve been making a special effort to break routine and go to pubs that, for one reason or another, we’ve ignored or avoided in the past. (Which, by the way, has been great fun.) As part of that, on Friday, at a loose end between trains in St Austell, we went to the first pub we came across on exiting the station — The Queen’s Head Hotel.

Some context: St Austell is a working town rather than a tourist destination, dominated by the brewery up the hill with its slick Hicks’ Bar, but oddly lacking a destination pub at its centre. We’ve tended to end up in the over-large, over-bright White Hart on previous visits because we could at least see inside. Often quiet in the evenings, the town is even more so in November and early December.

The Queen’s Head is an old building with two entrances and, though lacking partitions, indicates the lingering class divide with soft furniture and carpeting. All the action was around the bar and the pool table where regulars of various ages, all male as far as we observed, were chatting and joking with the young woman behind the bar.

There was cask ale on offer, and it was in decent condition, but we were surprised to see how many people were drinking pint cans of Stella Artois, straight from the tin. There is one obvious reason for that choice: it was £2.60 a pop, whereas the going rate for a pint of draught lager is more like £4.

For beer folk, this might seem like bad news, even a bit depressing — what hope for breweries if people don’t want or can’t afford to drink the beer they produce? And it does feel a bit like the pub has given up — the equivalent of turning up for work in your pyjamas.

But here’s that silver lining we promised: doesn’t this say something quite hopeful about the institution of the pub?

Given that you can buy Stella at the supermarket for the equivalent of about £1.30 a pint — exactly the same product, served in the same way — why would you pay even as much as £2.60? The pub, even one that isn’t all that special, is adding value.

People have to go out once in a while to be with other humans, and the pub is still the best place to do it.

Magical Mystery Pour #6: Headlands Pt. Bonita Rustic Lager

Magical Mystery Pour logo.The second of Joe Stange‘s suggestions is another canned American lager whose blurb hints at pre-prohibition credibility. Joe says:

“I have never had this beer, but I’m fascinated by the idea of an old-fashioned American lager revival. This one’s from San Francisco.

We bought it from Beers of Europe for £3.99. Its ABV is 5.3% and the can is big by craft beer standards (US 18oz — 473ml) but also, with its bare metallic finish, brings to mind supermarket own-brand beers and energy drinks.

We drank it in the same session as Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge and our impressions were definitely influence by the proximity.

Continue reading “Magical Mystery Pour #6: Headlands Pt. Bonita Rustic Lager”

Magical Mystery Pour #5: Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We asked noted beer writer Joe Stange (@Thirsty_Pilgrim) to select our second batch of Magical Mystery Pour beers and he said yes. Well, actually, he said:

  1. “Oh I like this. It’s like your friends actually letting you play DJ at a party.”
  2. “You know, it’s very tempting to troll you with the six worst beers I can think of.”

But, after further consideration, he decided on an entirely different theme: lager. Specifically, he chose a mix of Belgian, German and American beers, some that he knows well, others about which he is curious, all of which we then purchased with our own cash from Beers of Europe.

First, we tackled Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge, a 4.8% ABV, vaguely-heritage-y California golden lager. Joe hasn’t tried it but says:

This one comes all the way from Sacramento at 42 IBU. I hope it’s drinkable. The labels on these revivalist American lagers remind me of current generational tilts toward things like beard oil and cowboy rye whiskey. I expect a barber shop quarter to appear when you drink this.

It came in a 330ml can that cost £3.49 — not an outrageous price but not cheap either, especially for what you might call a basic beer style.

Initial impressions, even before opening the can, were mixed: on the one hand, the label was glued to the can which, with UK beers, we have tended to regard as a bad sign. On the other, we’ve rarely seen more informative blurb:

Labelling on Ruhstaller's can: hops, barley, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be anything to hide here which is reassuring, even if we don’t actually have any idea whether those are particularly great varieties of barley, or if these farms are anything special.

After pouring, we could but marvel: it looked so pretty. The head was as stiff as beaten egg-whites and the body of the beer, pale gold, almost seemed to give off a light of its own. (Although, to be fair, this is also true of, say, Stella Artois.)

Ruhstaller's in the glass on a beer mat.

The aroma was restrained — just an appetising wisp of herbs and citrus peel.

The flavour had a few stages: first, that crusty bread savoury-sweetness we associate with decent German beers, then a brief appearance from that twist of citrus, followed by — oh, blimey! — a crushing monster truck of unchecked bitterness. The first few sips were almost challenging, tipping way over from crisp into harsh. But the more we drank, the less that bothered us. Our palates adjusted to this new reality, just as the shock-inducing cold plunge at a spa gets to be fun after a while. We began to think that, yes, we’d like a few more of these in for the kind of hot day we’re sure is on the way, when the back of the throat demands something with real bite.

It’s typically American (if we can indulge in some stereotyping) in its boldness and frankness, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsubtle or silly. There are no grapefruits here.

If you think lager is bland, or you think Jever and Pilsner Urquell aren’t the beers they used to be, give this a try. It might just be the jolt you need.