Out of the loop

A milk carton of IPA.

I ended up sat in Bottles & Books on my own on Friday night, hovering around the edge of a conversation about beer that made me feel totally ignorant and out of touch.

Bottles & Books is our local craft beer phantasmagorium, with fridges full of cans, a wall of bottles, and a few taps of draught beer served by the third and two-thirds measure.

On Friday, the discussion turned to IPA, and it was when I heard this sentence that I knew I was out of my depth:

Brut IPA died a death fairly quickly, didn’t it? And NEIPA just tastes a bit… old fashioned. It’s all about the Hudson Valley style now.

Hudson Valley? Is that a region? Yes, but it’s also a brewery, as profiled in this article, which has a headline apparently designed to annoy conservative beer geeks who already think brewing has been fatally compromised by the amateur tendency:

Hudson Valley Brewery Makes Beer Based on Instinct, not Instructions

Sour IPA is, I gather, the long and short of it, and sure enough, when Jess and I went to the Left Handed Giant taproom yesterday, there was one on the menu.

We gave up trying to stay on top of trends years ago but there was something intoxicating about all this new information, all the names and details, that made me think… Should we try?

The odd educational eavesdropping session probably wouldn’t do us any harm, at least.

Craft Lager and Whatever IPA

Whatever IPA.

We’ve been observing the way people, including some of our own friends and colleagues, order their drinks in pubs these days.

Here’s a fairly typical exchange:

“What you having?”

[Pointing at the keg taps] “Whatever IPA they’ve got.”

“Maltsmith’s?”

“Yeah, fine.”

Maltsmith’s (Caledonian/Heineken, 4.6%) is the same as Samuel Smith India Ale (5%, coppery, English hops) is the same as BrewDog Punk (5.6%, pale, pungent) is the same as Goose Island IPA (AB InBev, 5.9%, amber, piney).

We’ve noticed more or less the same tendency with ‘craft lager’ – a phrase we geeks could probably lose weeks bickering over but which to most consumers has a fairly clear meaning: something with CRAFT LAGER written on its label, and a brand invented in the past decade.

Fuller’s Frontier, Hop House 13 (Guinness), St Austell Korev, Camden Hells (AB InBev), Lost & Grounded Keller Pils… They’re all seen as avatars of the same thing, despite the vast divergence in flavours, and regardless of ownership, independence, and so on.

It was weird the other night to be in Seamus O’Donnell’s, a central Bristol Irish pub, and see on draught not only Guinness stout but also a Guinness branded golden ale, citra IPA, and two crafted-up lagers – Hop House 13 and Guinness Pilsner.

This line-up is what people expect to find in 2018, and breweries are obliged to respond if they don’t want to lose space on the bar to competitors.

The frustration for beer geeks is that this feels and looks like what they wanted, what they clamoured for, but the beers themselves are so often disappointing – hops a little more in evidence than the old mainstream, perhaps, but rarely more than that.

And if you’re wedded to ideals of independence, quality and choice, it’s all a bit worrying: most consumers are apparently easy to befuddle, or don’t care, which is bad news for those who do.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 13 October 2018: Pine, Pubs, Pilsner

Here’s everything in beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from nostalgia to grapefruit IPA.

First, some mild melancholy: Becky at A Fledgling Blogger has been reflecting on the part being alone in the pub has played in the state of her psychology over the years:

As a student in Newcastle when times were hard (which they often were) I would head to The Carriage alone and stare into a pint until I felt that I could face the world again. I can’t say I always felt better after sitting in the pub alone for hours, but it made me feel like I was able to go home and talk to my friends. After all alcohol is a depressant but it also loosens the lips and it meant that I felt able to confide in my long-suffering flat mate who regularly dragged me out of my pit of despair.


Casks in a pub yard.

Jessica Mason AKA the Drinks Maven has joined the wave of discussion around cask ale that always follows publication of the Cask Report with observations on opportunities missed during the craft beer hype of the past half-decade:

This might have been the pivotal point where cask appreciators repositioned ale. Effectively, reminding how it is naturally flavoursome, freshly created and diverse in its myriad of varieties. All of this would have been compelling; as would flagging up the trend for probiotics and natural ingredients… But the vernacular surrounding cask ale lacked something else: sheer excitement.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 13 October 2018: Pine, Pubs, Pilsner”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 July 2018: Cain’s, Keptinis, Craeft

Here’s all the reading about beer and pubs that inspired us to hit the BOOKMARK button in the past week, from pubs to hazy IPAs.

But let’s start with some items of news.


Illustration: intimidating pub.

For Original Gravity Emma Inch has written about the feeling of being on edge in pubs, even if nothing concrete happens, because of a sense that people are just a little too aware of “what makes you different”:

Throughout my drinking life I’ve been asked to leave a pub on the grounds that it’s a ‘family friendly venue’; I’ve witnessed a friend being ejected for giving his male partner a dry peck on the cheek; I’ve had a fellow customer shout homophobic abuse in my ear whilst the bartender calmly continued to ask me to pay for my pint… Once, I had to shield my face from flying glass as the pub windows were kicked in by bigots outside, and I still remember the sharp, breathless fear in the days following the Admiral Duncan pub bombing, not knowing if it was all over, or who and where would be targeted next.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 14 July 2018: Cain’s, Keptinis, Craeft”

Further Reading #2: Understanding IPA

We’d love to be able to buy a reference anthology of great writing on the subject of IPA. This post, a manifestation of wishful thinking, is the next best thing.

There is also an idea that when people ask for advice on where to read about the history and culture of IPA, which happens from time to time, we can just point them here.

Hopefully, this series of links, in roughly this order, provides the outline of a narrative without too many details and diversions.

It’s aimed at learners, or people after a refresher, but we hope even jaded veterans will find a couple of items they’ve missed.

Where we have been able to identify free-to-access sources we’ve provided links and in the cases of material you have to pay for we’ve tried to suggest free alternatives.

This one feels like more of a work in progress than the lager list. If you can suggest substantial, solidly researched articles that fill in gaps then let us know either in the comments or by email.

Continue reading “Further Reading #2: Understanding IPA”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 October 2017: Sir Geoff, Squirrels, Subjectivity

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of booze and pubs in the past week, from industry profiles to philosophical ponderings.

First, the Brewers’ Journal has a profile of UK brewing industry veteran Sir Geoff Palmer who came to the UK from Jamaica as a teenager in 1955:

“I’ve been able to teach many people, I have been given awards and I have even been given an OBE which are all great, great, privileges.

“But to be honest, the best feeling is when I go into a supermarket and see someone struggling when it comes to the choices available to them on the beer aisle.

“So I go up and ask what are they looking for. I don’t tell them I have studied and taught brewing, I just listen to what they say and make a suggestion that they will hopefully enjoy. I’d like to think they will do something with that knowledge.

“But in reality, they will probably just go home and tell their family about the old Jamaican that was rambling on!”

We were also interested to read the same publication’s interviews with Phil Lowry (“Brewers have little to bitch about right now. If your brand isn’t flying, that’s your fault. ”) and John Keeling of Fuller’s: “I think this industry here is still too slavish to America. We need to develop our own identity and our own beer styles should be at the forefront of that.”

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 October 2017: Sir Geoff, Squirrels, Subjectivity”

Old School IPA

Chris Clough’s Tweet, above, prompted us to put into words something that’s been buzzing around our heads for a while: Old School IPA is, and should be, a distinct sub-style.

What Chris was actually getting at, as elaborated upon in subsequent Tweets, is that what would have seemed a proper, unremarkable amount of bitterness in an IPA c.2010 has come to be regarded as high bitterness in this age of soft, sweet, fruit-juice-like beers, and therefore a bit retro.

But, as it happens, we’ve used the term frequently to distinguish a particular type of IPA, of which some other examples are…

  1. Weak, brown, mid-20th-century IPA, e.g. Greene King.
  2. Pale, citrusy 1990s American-inspired IPA, e.g. St Austell Proper Job.
  3. Hazy, sweet, oniony 21st century IPA, e.g. this lot.

These are all legitimate takes with verifiable lineage to the 19th century original, even if it’s hard to see any family resemblance between GK IPA and a Cloudwater DIPA.

India Pale Ale No. 1

But Old School IPA, as we’ve thought of it, is a kind of non-identical twin to the 1990s American style in particular, emerging from the same round of scholarly enthusiasm centred around Roger Protz, Mark Dorber and the White Horse on Parson’s Green. We’ve written about this a few times but here’s a brief account from Mr Protz himself:

Dorber decided to hold a pale ale festival at the pub in 1993 and asked Bass, owners of the White Horse, if they would brew a special IPA for the event. The brewer responded by calling up a retired brewer Tom Dawson who recalled brewing Bass Continental for the Belgian market, based on Burton beers from Victorian times. The 7.2% beer he brewed caused such interest when it was launched at the White Horse that Mark Dorber and me, with the support of the British Guild of Beer Writers, organised a major seminar in 1994 at the Whitbread Brewery in the Barbican. Brewers from both Britain and the United States attended with their interpretations of the style. Among those from the U.S. was Garrett Oliver who went on to become a celebrated brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery where he still produces the East India IPA he brought to the seminar.

What makes an IPA Old School in our view is and emphasis on hop bitterness as well as, and perhaps more than, aroma/flavour; a preference for English hop varieties; mellow orange character rather than pine or grapefruit; and a certain stoical pintability, despite relatively high ABVs by late 20th century cask ale standards.

Victorian IPA might be a good alternative description, and that’s certainly the iconography employed on many of those we’ve come across: Old Empire, Bengal Lancer, Bombay 106, and so on. We tend to enjoy beers like this and would like to see more of them, especially given that everything is IPA now anyway.

We’re not the first to give a personalised breakdown of IPA sub-styles — check out Jeff Alworth’s here, and Mark Dredge’s here.

Magical Mystery Pour #22: Brixton Megawatt Double IPA

This is another beer chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East. It’s an 8% ABV double IPA from Brixton, South London, which we got for £3.09 per 330ml via the Honest Brew online store.

Rebecca says:

Another high ABV beer, yes, but I was slow to discover Brixton Brewery and this was something I rectified in 2016. All of their core beers are intensely drinkable, but this is an annual release of their DIPA and it’s packed with some great flavours from both Northern and Southern hops, including three unfamiliar to me: Rakau, Mosaic, Azacca and Falconers Flight. I got to try the 2016 version in December at a bar only a minute’s walk from the brewery. In fact, I also happened to be there on the day that they showed up with the keg and was told to watch out for the neon orange keg badge when it was on… I love Brixton Brewery and this nice release is well-balanced and very palatable number. It’s the biggest ABV beer they do and it goes down in a flash.

Every now and then, not very often, our palates get out of sync — you say hints of tomato, I say notes of potato, let’s call the whole thing off, and so on. With this beer we both tasted more or less the same things but in terms of overall likeability it fell into no-man’s-land.

Brixton Megawatt DIPA in the glass.

Popping the cap released a burst of fruit aroma, as if someone had stamped on a tangerine, with a gentle ‘Tsk!’ Some beers won’t be controlled on pouring but this one was highly malleable, providing more or less foam depending on the angle and height of the pour — you know, like a proper beer. We ended up with an unmoving head of just-off-white over a clear body of orange-highlighted brown — a 2009 model DIPA rather than the hazy yellow generally preferred in 2017, then.

Noses in, there was hot apricot jam and, appropriately, but disconcertingly, a suggestion of toasted brown bread.

The flavour is intense, we both agreed on that — there really is a lot going on. It’s rather jumbled and muddy, an odd combination of peach and chocolate. It’s fairly well dried-out and light-bodied, but also fiercely bitter. And then a different kind of bitterness — the savoury burnt dinner sort — lands on top of that. Plus, finally, there’s some hot booziness.

Boak: ‘That’s really very decent. Almost rough but not quite. Characterful. I like it.’

Bailey: ‘Hmm. I’m not keen. It tastes like dodgy home-brew to me. I’m confused by all these dark beer flavours in a double IPA.’

We concluded, based on this beer and a couple of others we’ve tried from the same brewery, that Brixton isn’t one of those outfits aspiring for slick and clean so much as funky and textured. Not everyone will like what they do, which is great — we want more breweries that not everyone likes — but probably explains why they attract less buzz than some of their peers in London. If you like your beer impolite and punkish, give it a try. If you insist on a high polish, walk on by.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 4 February 2017: Lexicography, St Louis, Ateliers

Here’s all the beer and pub writing that grabbed our attention in the past seven days from different ways to say you’re bladdered to mysteries of the American palate.

First, for the BBC’s culture pages, lexicographer and broadcaster Susie Dent considers the 3,000 words in the English language to describe being drunk:

The concoctions those knights dispensed fill an even richer lexicon, veering from the euphemistic ‘tiger’s milk’ to the blatant invitation of ‘strip-me-naked’. Add those to the 3,000 words English currently holds for the state of being drunk (including ‘ramsquaddled’, ‘obfusticated’, ‘tight as a tick’, and the curious ‘been too free with Sir Richard’) and you’ll find that the only subjects that fill the pages of English slang more are money and sex.

(But has she quite got that bit on Bride-ale right?)


Barmen pouring IPAs.
SOURCE: Jeff Alworth/Beervana

These next two posts need to be read as one piece. First, Jeff Alworth argues — persuasively, we think — that the reason IPAs are so dominant in US craft beer is because it’s the first beer style Americans can really call their own, like jazz and comic books:

Americans are finding their palates, which is a sign of maturity. This is not a new point here at the blog, but it’s becoming more pointed. When a country develops its own beer culture, diversity declines. This is why Belgian and British ales don’t taste the same, nor Czech and German lagers. Americans have found their groove, and it is lined with the residue of sticky yellow lupulin.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 4 February 2017: Lexicography, St Louis, Ateliers”

The A-Team

Illustration: the A-Team.

Without quite meaning to we’ve acquired some habits — a line-up of bottled beers that we always have in the cupboard or fridge.

What follows is probably as near as you’ll ever get from us to an X Beers Before You Y list.

Bitter (pale ale) or pale and hoppy session beers we tend to drink in the pub. We’re spoiled for choice, really, even in Penzance, and even more so if we take the bus out to the Star at Crowlas. Still, it’s worth saying that St Austell Proper Job is our default pub drink these days. It’s for the more unusual styles that we resort to bottles.

Anchor Porter from the US which goes at around £2-3 per 355ml bottle in the UK is our go-to beer in the stout family. We arrived at this decision after proper testing. When the urge for a dark beer that really tastes dark overcomes us, this is the one we reach for, knowing it will be great every time.

There are lots of great Belgian beers but one that never gets boring, because it’s the best beer in the world, is Westmalle Tripel. There are always a couple of bottles of this in every order we place.

Orval is our favourite example of… Orval. We went from being sceptical to puzzled to devotees over the course of a couple of years. We love it in its own right — it’s always different, yet somehow the same — but we also like to play with it. It’s our house stock ale if you like.

We don’t often need a stout more robust than Anchor Porter but when we do it’s Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout. It tastes its strength, coats the tongue, and comes with a tractor-trailer of funky weirdness that really does ensure a single glass can last all evening. One case every other year seems to do the job, though.

This is both our most boring choice and likely to be most controversial: we’ve yet to find a flowery, aromatic American-style IPA that is better value or more reliably enjoyable than BrewDog Punk. Every time we open a bottle or can we say, ‘Wow!’ which is exactly what we want from this kind of beer. Nine times out of ten Proper Job at the Yacht Inn is all the hops we need but this is the one we keep at home when our blood-humulone levels drop to dangerously low levels.

When we want something sour and refreshing we consistently turn to Magic Rock Salty Kiss. It’s not overly strong, not overly acidic, and is just the right kind of acidic for us, too. (But we won’t say too much — it’s coming up in the current round of Magical Mystery Pour.)

But there are still vacancies — styles where we play the field. When it comes to lager, we currently cycle through St Austell Korev (great value, easy to find), Thornbridge Tzara (yes, we know, not technically a lager, but technically brilliant) and Schlenkerla Helles (the smoke is just enough of a twist to keep us excited). Even though we tasted a load of them we still don’t have a bottled mild we feel the need to have permanently at hand — it’s a pub beer, really. We tend to buy Saison Dupont or BrewDog Electric India but that’s not a lock — we’re still actively auditioning others and saison isn’t something we drink every week. When we get the urge to drink wheat beer, we’re still happy with Hoegaarden, and most German brands do what they need to do, so we just pop to the shops.

So, that’s us. A tendency to conservatism, to the safe option, and to the familiar. (Which is, of course, what Magical Mystery Pour is intended to counter.)

But what about you — do you have any go-to beers? What are they? Or does the whole idea of drinking the same beers over and again just bore you to death?