There’s nothing like a prolonged, enforced stay at home to make you reflect on which beers you really like.
In the past month and a half, since we stopped going to the pub, we’ve been buying beer from various places and have certainly found our favourites.
Even before the crisis kicked in, as we researched the offerings from various supermarkets, we’d reached the conclusion that canned Thornbridge Jaipur is a hard beer to beat for drinking at home.
Having polished off 36 tins between us, bought direct from Thornbridge’s online store at about £1.80 each, that opinion hasn’t changed.
Jaipur has been a star for 15 years now despite a period when “it wasn’t what it used to be” – anecdotally, the result of ill-advised recipe tinkering a decade or so ago; the misstep was swiftly fixed but that kind of dent in a beer’s reputation tends to linger.
For our part, we come across it on cask three or four times a year and haven’t been able to fault it, except to say that the combination of 5.9% ABV and moreishness isn’t helpful as middle age sets in.
For a while, though, we’d have told you that the kegged and packaged versions weren’t a patch on the cask. Good, still, but less complex and less… well, alive.
The cans, though, are extraordinarily good.
In fact, a glass filled to the brim with the contents of most of two cans is about as close to a pint of cask ale as we’ve been able to get at home.
The softness, the depth, the green-fingered freshness, the mysterious electricity – they’re all there.
Sure, we’d rather be in the Drapers Arms, but Jaipur and chunks of cheese on Sunday night is holding the madness at bay.
The other thing we crave is, of course, lager, and the same brewery’s Lukas Helles (4.2% ABV, c.£1.70 per 330ml) has also impressed us. It was always good but now seems to have ascended to the next tier – convincingly German-tasting, sparking-fresh, as wholesome as a hike in the Fränkische Schweiz.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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).