Jarl vs. Citra – clipping in the treble?

We’ve been lucky enough to drink a fair bit of Fyne Ales Jarl and Oakham Citra lately, though not yet side by side in the same pub, and they’re both fantastic beers.

If we could eas­i­ly, reli­ably get one or the oth­er near where we live, we’d prob­a­bly not drink much else, at least for a few months.

But Al from Fug­gled asked the fol­low­ing ques­tion…

…it got us think­ing.

We con­clud­ed, quite quick­ly, based on gut feel­ing, that Jarl is a bet­ter beer. (Or more to our taste, any­way.)

Twit­ter agreed with us, too:

Again, to reit­er­ate, we love Oakham Cit­ra, as do many peo­ple who told us they pre­ferred Jarl.

For us, it’s per­haps still a top ten beer.

But what gives Jarl that slight edge?

It’s maybe that Cit­ra, when we real­ly think about it, has a sharp, insis­tent, almost clang­ing note that the more sub­tle Scot­tish ale avoids. It can get a bit tir­ing, even, four pints into a ses­sion.

We often find our­selves think­ing about beer in terms of sound and in this case, you might say Cit­ra is clip­ping in the tre­ble, just a touch.

An EQ meter.

There’s anoth­er pos­si­ble fac­tor, of course: we think most of the Jarl we’ve drunk has come sparkled, while the Cit­ra is usu­al­ly pre­sent­ed as nature intend­ed.

Citra as Brand, Like Bacon as Brand, Like Chocolate as Brand

Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

Every now and then we’ll reach a point in a conversation where the person opposite wants to know, “What’s a good beer I should be looking out for, then?”

This used to be fair­ly easy to answer, but with more brew­eries, and more beers, and what feels like a ten­den­cy away from the con­cept of the core range or flag­ship beer, it’s become tricky.

There are beers we like but don’t get to drink reg­u­lar­ly enough to say we know, and oth­ers that we love but don’t see from one year to the next.

Last time some­one asked, though, it just so hap­pened that we’d reached a con­clu­sion: “Well, not a spe­cif­ic beer, but you can’t go wrong with any­thing with Cit­ra in the name.”

We were think­ing of Oakham Cit­ra, of course – the beer that effec­tive­ly owns this unique Amer­i­can hop vari­ety in the UK, and has done since 2009.

In his excel­lent book For the Love of Hops Stan Hierony­mus pro­vides a pot­ted his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of Cit­ra:

[Gene] Probas­co made the cross in 1990 that result­ed in the Cit­ra seedling. At the time brew­ers did­n’t talk about what would lat­er be called ‘spe­cial’ aro­ma, but “that’s where all the inter­est seems to be these days,” he said. In 1990 he cross-pol­li­nat­ed two plants, a sis­ter and broth­er that result­ed from a 1987 cross between a Haller­tau Mit­tel­früh moth­er and a male from an ear­li­er cross… [In 2001 hop chemist Pat Ting] shipped a two-pound sam­ple to Miller… Troy Rysewyk brewed a batch called Wild Ting IPA, dry hop­ping it with only Cit­ra… “It smelled lke grape­fruit, lychee, man­go,” Ting said. “But fer­ment­ed, it tast­ed like Sauvi­gnon Blanc.”

Cit­ra was very much the hot thing in UK brew­ing about six or sev­en years ago. It was a sort of won­der hop that seemed to com­bine the pow­ers of every C‑hop that had come before. It was easy to appre­ci­ate – no hints or notes here, just an almost over-vivid horn blast of flavour –and, in our expe­ri­ence, easy to brew with, too.

We’re bad at brew­ing; Amar­il­lo often defeat­ed us, and Nel­son Sauvin always did; but some­how, even we made decent beers with Cit­ra.

Now, with the trend­set­ters hav­ing moved on, Cit­ra con­tin­ues to be a sort of anchor point for us. If there’s a beer on offer with Cit­ra in the name, even from a brew­ery we’ve nev­er heard of, or even from a brew­ery whose beers we don’t gen­er­al­ly like, we’ll always give it a try.

Hop Back Cit­ra, for exam­ple, is a great beer. It lacks the oomph of Oakham’s flag­ship and bears a dis­tinct fam­i­ly resem­blance to many of the Sal­is­bury brew­ery’s oth­er beers (“They brew one beer with fif­teen dif­fer­ent names,” a crit­ic said to us in the pub a while ago) but Cit­ra lifts it out of the sepia. It adds a pure, high note; it elec­tri­fies.

Since con­clud­ing that You Can’t Go Wrong With Cit­ra, we’ve been test­ing the the­sis. Of course we’ve had the odd dud – beers that taste like they got the sweep­ings from the Cit­ra fac­to­ry floor, or were wheeled past a sin­gle cone on the way to the ware­house – but gen­er­al­ly, it seems to be a sound rule.

We were recent­ly in the pub with our next door neigh­bour, a keen ale drinker but not a beer geek, and a Cit­ra fan. When Hop Back Cit­ra ran out before he could get anoth­er pint his face fell, until he saw that anoth­er beer with Cit­ra in the name had gone up on the board: “Oh, there you go – as long as it’s a Cit­ra, I don’t mind.”

All con­sumers want is a clue, a short­cut, a bit of help. That’s what they get from IPA, or ‘craft’. And appar­ent­ly also from the name of this one unsub­tle, good-time hop vari­ety.

Marks & Spencer Single Hop Ales

Marks & Spencer Single Hop Ales

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.

Fashionable hops

Hops

  1. One of our friends: “So what exact­ly are hops? Are they the thing that makes up the main body of the beer? Are they a cere­al or some­thing?”
  2. Mark ‘Bot­tled Beer Year’ Dex­ter on beer labelling: “Hop vari­eties list­ed as an enhance­ment are great. But on their own – they leave too many clue­less.”
  3. Anoth­er friend drink­ing our Cit­ra pale ale: “What’s Cit­ra? Is that a type of beer?”
  4. Descrip­tion of Pen­zance Brew­ing Com­pa­ny’s Trink pale ale in the pro­gramme for a local beer fes­ti­val: “…fea­tur­ing the ever-so-now Cit­ra hop”.
  5. Anoth­er brew­er on Twit­ter: “We’ve giv­en in and brewed a beer with Cit­ra now every­one else has stopped going on about it.”
  6. Numer­ous beer geeks: “Needs more hops.”

Lots of peo­ple don’t know what hops are or what they con­tribute to beer.

Many oth­ers don’t under­stand that dif­fer­ent hop vari­eties, in dif­fer­ent pro­por­tions, added at dif­fer­ent times in the process, affect the flavour of the fin­ished beer.

And hard­ly any­one can actu­al­ly tell the dif­fer­ence between one hop vari­ety and anoth­er from the aro­ma and taste alone. (We cer­tain­ly can’t, though we make a lucky guess now and then, and God knows we’ve tried.)

The very idea that there might be fash­ion­able hops would sur­prise many.

In con­clu­sion, we think hyper-aware­ness of hops is one of the biggest dif­fer­ences between those who sim­ply enjoy beer and those who obsess over it, and it’s anoth­er thing to add to the list of per­spec­tive checks.

Pic­ture by Dun­can from Flickr Cre­ative Com­mons.

At the end of the learning curve

Barrels outside Brodie's Beers brewery, from their website.

When we heard in 2008 that brew­ing had begun again in the small set up at the back of the William IV pub in Ley­ton, only a few min­utes from our house in Waltham­stow, we were very excit­ed. We were only more excit­ed to dis­cov­er that Brodie’s planned to brew a wide range of beers, from tra­di­tion­al milds through to fruit-flavoured beers, via impe­r­i­al stout. At that time, Lon­don brew­eries were few and far between, and this was right on our doorstep.

In those ear­ly months and years, how­ev­er, we were painful­ly aware that these were brew­ers on a learn­ing curve and oth­ers (see the com­ments on that arti­cle) agreed. When James and Lizzie Brodie kind­ly sent us a box of beers to review, of the ten or twelve pro­vid­ed, only a hand­ful were real­ly impres­sive. The oth­ers hint­ed at great­ness but had too much of the plas­tic-buck­et home­brew about them – too much yeast­i­ness, mud­dy flavours and, er, vari­able con­di­tion­ing. (Beery car­pets. Joy.)

Well, it seems safe to sug­gest that, now, three years on, they have reached the end of that learn­ing curve. We keep read­ing breath­less­ly admir­ing com­ments on their beers on Twit­ter from all kinds of dis­cern­ing peo­ple, and the pint of their Cit­ra (3.1%) we had at Cask in Pim­li­co last week was as good as any pale and hop­py beer we’ve had from any oth­er brew­ery. Crisp, well-defined, clean flavours; sparkling car­bon­a­tion; and all at bare­ly any alco­holic strength at all. A real knock­out.

If you’ve been wary of Brodie’s hav­ing been a dis­ap­point­ed ear­ly adopter, it’s time to give them anoth­er go, and see what all the fuss is about.