Beer with flavours, but not flavoured

La Soccarada beer.

There’s been plenty of thinking recently about whether adding ‘non-beery’ ingredients to beer is a good idea. (Here’s Jeff Alworth on that subject.) Broadly speaking, we tend to agree that throwing in things like cocoa nibs, doughnuts, maple syrup, wasabi and Tunnock’s Teacakes fails more often than it succeeds. This weekend, however, we were reminded that ‘wacky’ ingredients can work, if they’re used well, and we’re willing to broaden our minds a little.

First, on Friday night, we drank a Spanish beer, La Socarrada, imported by a Welsh delicatessen and restaurant chain, Ultracomida. We have pretty low expectations of Spanish ‘artisanal’ beer (based on past experience), and especially when it’s pitched as being ‘for food’ (maximum pretension, minimum flavour). La Soccarada, in a plain bottle with a glossy card tied around its neck, didn’t look promising, and the talk of rosemary and rosemary honey as key ingredients were immediately off-putting.

Things got worse when, on opening, it almost gushed, disturbing the yeast as it surged into the neck, which left us with a glass of cloudy, rather soupy, dark orange liquid. Our first reactions: “Oh, no! Eugh!” But then we thought about that reaction: were we being like those people who rejected Cascade hops for tasting ‘weird’ back in the seventies? We persevered. We find rosemary rather intense and a little nausea-inducing in great amounts; and, of course, we associate it with savouriness, which made it a challenge. (And being ‘challenged’ is overrated.) But we kept sipping, just like we can’t stop eating Twiglets once we start.

By the end, we’d decided that, actually, it was a pretty decent if rather unusual beer. The flavours certainly weren’t ‘dumbed down’ and were actually rather intriguing. In particular, we were interested to note how strongly the honey came through with that throat-catching, medicinal note that sets it apart from simple syrup. They didn’t sit superficially ‘on top’ of the beer, either, at least not any more than a big dry-hop aroma can be said to do so. It might benefit from more obvious hop bitterness, and a spicier yeast, but, in conclusion, we’d be pleased to drink this instead of Estrella Damm in a Spanish restaurant.

On Saturday, hammering the point home, we tasted Harbour Brewing Chocolate & Vanilla Imperial Stout alongside Rebel Brewing Co’s similarly conceived Mexi-Cocoa, and were impressed at the integration of the ‘flavourings’ into the body of both beers. Both were smooth and clean, with those ‘novelty’ ingredients bedded deep down, overlapping seamlessly with the bitterness of dark malts. Harbour’s milkier, sweeter beer was slightly more to our taste, beating Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and probably also Meantime’s take on the same idea.

We didn’t pay for any of these beers: La Soccarada was sent to us by Ultracomida’s PR firm, and Darren ‘Beer Today’ Norbury supplied samples of the stouts at a ‘sample sharing’ session in the back room of a local pub.