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.

Q&A: Harmonising European brewing methods, 1973

Newspaper headline from 1975Via Twitter, we’ve been asked to provide more information on plans by the European Common Market in 1973 to “harmonise European brewing methods”, as mentioned in Fintan O’Toole’s book  Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.

Mr O’Toole quotes from a story in the Daily Mirror (25/06/1973) headlined EUROBEER MENACE:

A Common Market threat to British beer united labour and Tory MPs yesterday. The threat came in reports of a plan by Market authorities to ‘harmonise’ brewing methods in member countries.

Mr. William Wilson, teetotal Labour MP for South Coventry, and Tory Sir Gerald Nabarro both plan to raise the issue with Food Minister Joseph Godber “in the interests of the beer drinkers of Britain.”

Sir Gerald said: “This would be a disaster. Our beer is world famous for its strength, nutritional value and excellence.”

It’s not hard to work out what people thought harmonisation might mean: mild and bitter banned, German-style lager everywhere, by order of Brussels.

But there’s very little detail in the story and it reads like typical fuss-about-nothing tabloid reporting wilfully missing the point for the sake of causing outrage. (On the same page: NOW FRIED ONIONS ARE BANNED AT WIMBLEDON.)

Sure enough, it didn’t take much digging to find a report from the Economist from two days earlier (23/06/1973) announcing that these proposals had already been abandoned by the time the Mirror ran its piece.

"Ideal Suit in Lager" -- a hand with playing cards depicting lager brands.
Detail from the cover of Whitbread Way No. 13.

Beer geeks, however, were talking about at least one specific technical issue: in the discussion around harmonisation proposals, there was a suggestion that only female (seedless) hops ought to be used in brewing across Europe. In England, however, male hops were historically grown alongside female, and people had a vague sense that male hops… er… made our beer taste more virile? Or something.

Richard Boston wrote about this in his Guardian column for 29 September 1973:

You can imagine the consternation with which I received the ugly rumour that in order to conform with the practice of our Common Market partners the male hop was going to be routed out here too… I got straight on the blower to the Hops Marketing Board… and asked their spokesman if it was true… “Absolute balls,” he replied.

The Economist followed the Eurobeer story closely, reporting on its progress over the next few years, as in this particularly interesting piece from 2 November 1974:

Much nonsense is talked by European politicians about Brussels busybodies trying madly to standardise European food and drink. Britain’s Mr Harold Wilson is just about the worst offender. At long last it has provoked a European civil servant into putting the record straight. Anonymously, he is circulating a paper dissecting each complaint. Most are exposed as innacurate…

Plans for Eurobeer and Eurobread – now withdrawn for review – neither outlaw nor standardise national brews and loaves. The aim is rather to demolish protectionist barriers which impede the free sale of these products across national boundaries. Germany, for example, has strict rules which virtually mean that if a beer is not brewed in the German way it cannot be called beer. The Commission’s Eurobeer plan would make Germany open its market to imported beers, including British ales, which meet a common European standard.

In 1975, the UK Government held a referendum on continued membership of the European Community. The threat of Eurobeer came up repeatedly in referendum campaign materials such as this pamphlet from the Government itself. A Q&A with the Consumer Association in the Daily Mirror for 30 May 1975 answers our question head on:

Q: What does ‘harmonisation’ mean? Shall we be drinking Eurobeer?

A: Harmonisation means getting our standards in line with those of other countries to enable us to sell our products to them. There are two types in the Common Market:

TOTAL: When a Common Market law says that only products which comply with that law can be sold at all in the Common Market;

OPTIONAL: When individual countries can allow products which do not conform to the law to be sold in their own countries…

But if there is a regulation on beer or bread, this will almost certainly be optional.

Oddly enough, even though the EC/EU didn’t implement any such plan, by the late 1980s, lager was everywhere in England anyway, much of it brewed in the UK under the supervision of continental European brewers, and sold under continental European brand names. Market economics and consumer demand did what the EC didn’t.

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.

Session #125: Single Malt, Single Hop

Cascade Express -- hop-themed boarding card.

Mark Lindner at By the Barrel has asked us to consider so-called SMaSH beers — that is, those made using one variety of malt and one variety of hops.

We were going to give this a miss because we couldn’t think of any such beer we’d drunk in recent years, or at least not any that made a virtue of their SMaSH status and proclaimed it at point of sale.

(St Austell did release a series of SMaSH beers a couple of years ago but unfortunately, like so many of the more interesting products of our (not for much longer) local giant they proved impossible to actually find on sale in any of the pubs we visited at the time.)

But then we began to wonder… How many quite commonly found beers are SMaSH beers even if they don’t declare it?

Rooster’s Yankee, for example — a beer we wrote about at length in Brew Britannia and have often touched on elsewhere — is (as far as we can tell) made with 100 per cent Golden Promise malt and 100 per cent Cascade hops. And we believe (evidenced corrections welcome) that Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, another long-time favourite of ours, is made using 100 per cent English lager malt and 100 per cent, er, Brewer’s Gold hops.

You might say, in fact, that the pale-n-hoppy UK cask ale sub-style is often SMaSH by default. Sean Franklin, the founder of Rooster’s, has long championed the idea of using 100 per cent pale malt to provide the cleanest possible background for hops to express themselves, and that’s certainly approximately how most of the best examples of HLA seem to be engineered. Perhaps there’s some wheat in there (see Jarl) or a dab of something like Munich malt just to round it out a little but, generally, Franklinian simplicity seems to be the preferred route.

So, what other examples of Stealth SMaSH are out there in UK pubs?

And does anyone know, for example, if Oakham Citra might be a SMaSH beer? Online homebrew forums are full of guessed recipes (guesscipes…) but we can’t find authoritative information. Our guess is, yes, in which case, it turns out we’ve drunk tons of SMaSH beer after all.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 April 2017 — Metal, Myrcene, Milk Stout

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the last week, from heavy metal to heavy hops.

For Noisey, the music section of Vice, Sammy Maine has written what she calls ‘A Love Letter to British Metal Pubs’, highlighting the threat to this particular type of pub:

Another blow is the case of Bristol’s The Stag and Hounds—a metal/rock pub focused on the promotion of local and DIY shows—which will be closing next month. Announcing the news on their website, the team explained that ‘through a series of events and circumstances (some out of our control) we have looked at the books and it’s not viable for us to carry on to see the contract out.’ This kind of statement is becoming a broken record when it comes to fans of metal pubs—their presence tumbling thanks to various issues like tax hikes, the persistent demand for luxury flats and the feeling that they simply don’t feel hugely relevant or crucial anymore when metal can often feel more like a genre you pass through, rather than one you commit to.

(This is actually from a couple of weeks ago but we only noticed it the other day.)


Wild hops, Richmond, London.

Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey has shared a long, detailed post on the science of hops, based on research for a talk to a South London home brewing club. It is technical without being remote and typically forthright, acting (perhaps incidentally) as a rebuke to us and others who have failed to get on board the drink fresh train:

There are always people who say, ‘oh but I prefer my IPA with some age on it’ or similar. If you look around online it’s quite easy to find evidence of people drinking IPA or DIPA when it’s months or even years old and insisting it’s still great. It’s nice that they enjoy old beer but that’s not what the brewer intended. Of course, depending on the size of the brewery, there are steps which can be taken to give their beer as long a shelf life as possible (filtering and cold chain distribution, for example). For smaller breweries there is a much simpler option: advise your customers to drink fresh by applying a short best before date to your hop-forward beers, e.g. three or four months.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 April 2017 — Metal, Myrcene, Milk Stout”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 4 March 2017: Paddy Losty, Lone Wolf, London Pride

Here’s all the news and commentary in the world of beer that grabbed our interest in the last week, from Dublin pintmen to lone wolves.

From Stephen Bourke for the Dublin Inquirer comes the story of ‘pintman’ Paddy Losty who allowed himself to be photographed in the pub by a roving author and 20 years on has gone viral:

His fans set up a dedicated splinter group, which has now spun out to a Twitter account controlled by the group’s admins… His celebrity is secure, at least for the 4,548 fans of Photoshop jobs of Losty in the guise of characters ranging from Hans Moleman to Dionysus.

(Via @BarMas/@teninchwheels/@higginsmark.)


People watching TV in a pub.

Pints & Pubs is undertaking to visit every pub in Cambridge this year and the project is throwing up interesting case studies such as this reflection on the dominating force of an always-on television:

 I look around and everyone’s either staring at the TV or at their phones. One couple finish their drinks and get their coats on to leave, then stand there for 5 minutes transfixed by some wingsuit wearing stuntman landing in a pile of cardboard boxes. Another couple come in and go straight for the two chairs directly under the tv, then sit in silence, arching their necks to watch it. At one point, loud screams attract everyones attention – not the shriek from a customer laying eyes on one of the pub’s ghosts, but from a woman caught in a tornado in Alabama.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 4 March 2017: Paddy Losty, Lone Wolf, London Pride”

The Politics of Hops

Buy British Tea poster.

There’s been a flurry of discussion this week around the impact of last year’s EU referendum on British beer, and what might be yet to come, which has given us a new angle on the old schism.

First, there was this piece in the Guardian in which various figures in UK craft brewing expressed concerns about the supply of equipment and material in a post-referendum world:

‘Everybody’s noticed it and it’s to be expected because you’re importing hops from places like the US and Europe,’ said Andrew Paterson, head brewer at Dark Star Brewing in West Sussex. ‘It’s also the case for steel tanks, kegs, yeast manufactured in Holland, anything that’s imported. We’re not going to compromise on quality so it’s an ongoing cost.’

This isn’t the first article along these lines that’s appeared since last June and this response from our neighbourhood Euro-sceptic is a good summary of the reaction from conservatives (small c):

That same argument was made at greater length by veteran beer writer Roger Protz (disclosure: he’s always been very helpful with our research and we owe him many pints) in a letter to the Guardian yesterday:

The notion that British beer drinkers should have to pay higher prices as a result of rising costs of imported grain and hops is easily countered by suggesting brewers buy home-grown ingredients. It’s absurd to import grain when it’s widely acknowledged that maritime barley – as grown in Norfolk and Suffolk – delivers the finest flavour and the best sugars for fermentation… English Fuggles and Goldings [hops] are prized throughout the world for their distinctive aromas and flavours of pepper, spice, pine and orange. Is he unaware of such new English varieties as Endeavour and Jester developed in recent years that offer more of the rich citrus notes demanded by many craft brewers?

Of course he’s right — Britain does have great brewing ingredients and if hop and malt imports ceased outright tomorrow, life would go on. And, in fact, we would also like to see British brewers exploring British ingredients with fresh eyes and a bit of imagination.

But here’s the thing: it should be a choice, not an unintended consequence. Fuggles cannot adequately replace Citra or Simcoe, and using English ingredients purely out of grim necessity would be, as the Beer Nut suggested, a rather depressing compromise. Woolton Pie in beer form.

At the root of the Buy British school of thought it seems to us there are a couple of wrongheaded thoughts. First, we think some people believe the popularity of pale, hoppy American-influenced beers threatens the very existence of traditional English bitter — that they are the thin end of a wedge which will inevitably lead to total domination. It’s true that some brewers are producing proportionally less bitter and more hoppy golden ale than they used to but it feels to us like a balance, not a battle. If trad bitter really starts to look endangered, trust us, we’ll join you on the barricades, but who can seriously say they struggle to get a pint of something brown and old-school in Britain in 2017? Bitter and best bitter still occupy at least eight of the ten pumps at our local Wetherspoon, for example.

Secondly, there’s the idea that people ought to like beers other than the ones they currently profess to enjoy and that, with some pressure and education, they’ll learn to love the hops they’re with rather than yearning be with the hops they love.

There might be some room to bring people round to old-school flavours — to drink Harvey’s Sussex Best is to love it, after all– but we’ve got no doubt that there are plenty of beer drinkers out there who, if the only option was session bitter brewed with Fuggles or Goldings, would just switch to lager, or gin, or, blimey, anything else. They are interested in beer,  they have tried traditional bitter, and they just don’t like it. Seriously. Honestly. It isn’t a pose.

And there are quite a few brewers who probably feel the similar — who would rather give up altogether than brew with only UK hops. Can you imagine a chef specialising in Asian cuisine whose supply of coriander and ginger dried up getting excited at the prospect of going back to making steak and kidney pies?

You might say, ‘Fine, good riddance, I like steak and kidney pie, I’m alright, Jack,’ but we’ll be left with a less diverse, less healthy beer culture. Much as we love to wallow in the 1970s and 1980s in our research, we don’t want to restore that backup and lose 30 years of work, thanks very much.

Of course we don’t know how serious a worry this really is. Perhaps things will settle down and the C-hops will keep coming after all, or perhaps things will go off the rails altogether in which case we’ll have bigger things to worry about. Frankly, it’s hard to get a read at the moment because any discussion about the impact of the referendum, however thoughtful, is taken to be campaign propaganda by one side or the other and drowned out by yelling.

But while we wait for the dust to settle we’re going to drink as much as Oakham Citra as we can get hold of.

QUICK REVIEW: Rustically Charming, More Oak than Pine

Vibrant Forest Chinook in the glass.

Vibrant Forest was the stand-out brewery of last year’s Great British Beer Festival for us and their pale ale designed to showcase American Chinook hops sounded pretty appealing.

We bought it from Honest Brew at £2.29 for for a 330ml bottle and drank it on a rainy Wednesday in January when the moon was bright.

Something about the look of the beer in the glass immediately wrong-footed us: we were geared up for something pilsner-pale based on our previous experience with single-hop beers, but this was a hazy orange that looked leafy brown from most angles. The aroma was also surprising — more spice and toast than citrus, and quite muted altogether.

The spiciness carried through into the flavour which made us think of health food shops and dense German breads. We reckon there’s some crystal malt in here which it just gets away with, but which could easily retreat a bit further. The hops do make themselves known but primarily as a looming, rather harsh bitterness against the muddy, home-brew background.

That might sound as if we didn’t like it, but we did. Rough-hewn as it was, there was no staleness and it wasn’t fatally sweet. It had a lot of flavour and body for 5% ABV, too. Once we’d accepted that there was to be no grapefruit festival as advertised, we enjoyed it for what it was and found ourselves comparing it favourably to Adnams’s admittedly more polished Crystal Rye IPA. We reckon it would be better again as a cask ale, and also, counter to the advice of the Drink Fresh cult, after nine months or so mellowing in the bottle.

Vibrant Forest remain on our Keep Trying list.

More generally, it led us to reflect on the Shitloads of Hops approach to brewing. For a long time collective wisdom said that big brewery beers were boring because they were stingy with their hops, and only used Fuggles, and that therefore the answer was to be exceedingly, extravagantly, insanely generous. Up to a point, that works, but eventually returns diminish and it becomes a case of not how many hops you use but how you use them. Smart breweries these days are focusing on acquiring the best hops, storing them carefully to maintain their freshness, and thinking hard about how to use them for maximum impact. Should breweries that aren’t willing or able to do that retreat from the battlefield? Or are darker, malt-led beers simply a dead-end in 2017?

News, Nuggets & Longreads 8 October 2016: Pumpkins, Kernza, Green Hops

Here’s everything that’s grabbed our attention in the last week, from overlooked breweries to book reviews.

‘Why is it always the same old breweries that always get written about?’ goes the grumble. Well, this week, Phil from Oh Good Ale has answered the call with a piece considering TicketyBrew of Stalybridge, Greater Manchester:

So: if the beer’s that good, what’s standing between Ticketybrew and the big time? Why aren’t we hearing their name bandied about alongside Blackjack and RedWillow, or Cloudwater at a pinch? Why, not to put too fine a point on it, aren’t they hip? There are three reasons, I think.

(And let’s not pussyfoot about here: what’s stopping you profiling or interviewing one of those breweries that gets ignored?)


Pumpkin beer c.2008.

For Total Ales (Matt Curtis’s website) Claire M. Bullen attempts to summarise the history of pumpkin beers and of the controversy that surrounds them:

What do pumpkin products signal? For many, they demonstrate unsophisticated taste, girlishness, the opposite of connoisseurship. And, as with white wine, fruity cocktails, and other drinks that are still classed as ‘girly drinks,’ they’re profoundly uncool for men to consume (this notably doesn’t work in reverse; women are often lauded for consuming historically male-gendered products, like whisky and hoppy beers).

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 8 October 2016: Pumpkins, Kernza, Green Hops”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 1 October 2016: Off-Trade, On-Trade, Hops and TV

Another hectic week for us — only one blog post! — but we have been keeping up with our reading. Here’s what grabbed us in the last week.

First, a big story that deserves some pondering: for the first time beer sold to drink at home has outsold that drunk in pubs and other licensed premises. Here’s the Morning Advertiser‘s report and there’s some commentary from Matt Curtis and Neville ‘Red Nev’ Grundy.


Cask Report cover detail.

This year’s Cask Report has a new author, Sophie Atherton, who provides some personal commentary on her own relationship with cask beer on her blog:

I didn’t have the knowledge then that I have now, but I somehow knew you had to look after beer or it would spoil and, at worst, end up tasting like vinegar. A skilled publican knew how to care for beer and made sure it was only ever served tasting the way it should. But it seemed as though there must be a shortage of skilled publicans because wherever we went, in whatever town, we kept being served, flat, smelly and often vinegary cask beer. So I stopped drinking it.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 1 October 2016: Off-Trade, On-Trade, Hops and TV”