Magical Mystery Pour #29: Round Tower Avena Stout

The final bottle chosen for us by Essex expert Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) who blogs at Get Beer, Drink Beer is a stout from Chelmsford.

We bought our 500ml bot­tle from Essex Food for £3.40. The ABV is 4.7% and the label is min­i­mal­ist to the point of plain­ness, its black and white shout­ing STOUT! from afar. Justin says:

Sit­u­at­ed a stone’s throw from the heart of Chelms­ford, Essex’s only city, Round Tow­er have been pro­duc­ing some of the tasti­est beers in the coun­ty since 2013. Unafraid of try­ing out new tech­niques or embrac­ing new styles Simon and Han­nah Tip­pler pride them­selves on the qual­i­ty of their beer, and right­ly so. Ave­na Stout, whilst nei­ther exper­i­men­tal or chal­leng­ing, is nev­er­the­less a good exam­ple of what they are capa­ble of. Roast malts up front, a creamy mid­dle and burnt-toast-like dry fin­ish make for a very sat­is­fy­ing drink, one to be enjoyed what­ev­er the weath­er or time of day.

We like stout in prin­ci­ple but real­ly strug­gle to find many exam­ples at any­thing like stan­dard pub strength that espe­cial­ly excite us. Samuel Smith Oat­meal is one that does. We had high hopes for Ave­na because it sent the right sig­nals for us: mod­ern with­out being aggres­sive­ly trendy.

The head (foam) on a glass of Avena Stout.

The moment the crown cap came off the bot­tle let out a fierce hiss and the foam start­ed to rise up to the neck. It stopped short of gush­ing but it was an anx­ious moment and the very high car­bon­a­tion made it impos­si­ble to fol­low the instruc­tion on the bot­tle to pour care­ful­ly. How­ev­er slow­ly decant­ed, how­ev­er tilt­ed the receiv­ing ves­sel, every trick­le of beer into the glass kicked up an untame­able stack of beige froth. It took sev­er­al min­utes and sev­er­al tips of the bot­tle to get the glass any­where near full. The beer being very dark meant that it was also hard to see what was hap­pen­ing with the sed­i­ment but we assume some, maybe even a lot, did escape.

The aro­ma, inso­far as there was any, was of sharp, grassy hops over a back­ground of hot met­al. It was­n’t espe­cial­ly invit­ing, but it was­n’t off-putting either.

The flavour – the real­ly impor­tant thing – struck us instant­ly as very pleas­ant. That estab­lished, we tried to work out why. It’s not, after all, as if it was per­fect – there was a cer­tain home-brew-like lack of pol­ish that stopped just short of rough­ness. There was also a rat­tling clash between the hops and malt which almost hint­ed at black IPA, only green and leafy rather than grape­fruity. If we could tweak it it might be to shift the hops back in the mix to cre­ate more bit­ter­ness and present less veg­e­ta­tion. The fizz, too, is dis­tract­ing; a beer like this is bet­ter with a cask-like soft­ness. As it is the bub­bles per­haps con­tribute to the sharp­ness that under­cuts what does work.

And that is the sweet­ness and body which, for once, real­ly does earn the cliched descrip­tion ‘creamy’. As far as we know there’s no lac­tose in here but it had a sweet milk stout char­ac­ter any­way. So many micro-brew­ery stouts are clear­ly inspired by Guin­ness where­as this sits on the oth­er side of the fam­i­ly tree with Mack­e­son– nour­ish­ing, rum and raisin, just the thing for Grand­ma in the lounge or Mum on the mater­ni­ty ward.

And that’s about all we’ve got.  As Justin sug­gests, it’s not the kind of beer you write essays about. But if you want a slight­ly skewed take on tra­di­tion­al stout, or gen­er­al­ly find stout hard-going, this could be just the thing.

Thanks, Justin – that’s been fun.

Next in this series: Rach from Look at Brew sug­gests beers from Sus­sex.

Magical Mystery Pour 28: Wibbler’s Apprentice

This is the fourth of a selection of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) and it’s a 3.9% ‘session beer’ with Polish Marynka hops.

We bought our 500ml bot­tle from Essex Food for £3 and went into this with low expec­ta­tions. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly moaned about region­al gift shop beers – the kind of thing that seems to be brewed with min­i­mal skill and con­sis­ten­cy pri­mar­i­ly to appeal to Buy Local obses­sives who pick up a bit of beer at the local owl sanc­tu­ary or farm­ers’ mar­ket – and that’s what this looks like. The label is straight out of 1998, the brew­ery name is of the forced-joc­u­lar school, and we’d nev­er heard of the brew­ery until Justin’s email which should­n’t be a mark against it except that we’re par­tial believ­ers in the wis­dom of the hive mind and all that.

In par­tic­u­lar, as is often the case with bot­tle-con­di­tioned beers from unknown brew­eries, we assumed the worst and pre­pared for a gush­er, teatow­els at hand. Thank­ful­ly we were greet­ed by an assertive hiss with no accom­pa­ny­ing dra­ma. In the glass the beer was clear, amber, with a del­i­cate, soft-focus look about the head – very cask-like.

The ambi­ent aro­ma, which is what we’re now call­ing any­thing you can smell with­out stick­ing your nose in the glass, was pri­mar­i­ly sheer boozi­ness – quite an achieve­ment at this strength. Clos­er up, there was just a whiff of hedgerow, or bram­ble, or fruit tea.

We took a few sips, then a cou­ple of swigs, and not­ed some ups and downs in the sto­ry. First, there was a moment of con­cern – some­thing was a bit off, or stale, a card­board note – but that was soon fol­lowed by a pleas­ing essen­tial, unpre­ten­tious beer­i­ness. Of brick-built unadorned solid­i­ty. There was tof­fee, a flavour rather out of fash­ion these days, which was bal­anced against waves of round, orangey, spring-fresh hop flavour. Final­ly, there came down a steel trap of bit­ter­ness.

Apprenc­tice has a lot of flavour, a lot of body, a lot of every­thing except alco­hol, with­out being showy about it. It is old-fash­ioned and reminds us pleas­ant­ly of our days ‘sam­pling ales’, pre-blog, with Michael Jack­son’s hit-list at hand. There’s a resem­blance to Bad­ger Tan­gle­foot, once a pret­ty cool beer believe it or not, if you want a point of ref­er­ence.

We grew more impressed the more we drank despite the lin­ger­ing stale note. This, we con­clud­ed, is anoth­er fun­da­men­tal­ly decent beer – the kind we real­ly like – that’s been some­what let down by the pack­ag­ing process. Still, we’d drink it again, and we’d love to try a cask ver­sion in a creaky old pub in the kind of vil­lage where the clock in the square stopped in 1923.

If you like trad, give it a go.

Magical Mystery Pour #27: Elephant School Sombrero

This passion fruit and chia saison is the third in a series of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer.

Ele­phant School is a would-be-hip exper­i­men­tal sub-brand of Brent­wood Brew­ing. This beer cost us £3 for 330ml from Essex Food. Justin says:

Brent­wood Brew­ery, even though it’s across the oth­er side of town to me, is my clos­est brew­ery in Essex and their Ele­phant School brand (named after an actu­al ele­phant school in Brent­wood where peo­ple were trained to ride ele­phants by the East India Com­pa­ny pri­or to going to the sub-con­ti­nent ) is their more cre­ative arm. Som­brero is brewed with chia, a mem­ber of the mint fam­i­ly, and pas­sion fruit, the lat­ter ingre­di­ent almost tak­ing the lid off the fer­menter it was so volatile. This is still my favourite of their beers even though I have brewed my own cran­ber­ry Porter with them recent­ly, Porter in a Storm.

What were our prej­u­dices going into this? We’ve often been rather impressed by Brent­wood’s cask ales – a 2.8% bit­ter of theirs is per­haps the best low-alco­hol beer we’ve ever had – but can’t recall hav­ing tried their bot­tled prod­ucts, and bot­tled beers from small brew­eries can be a risky busi­ness. Then there’s the style as described: sai­son is a dif­fi­cult, del­i­cate style and we some­times sus­pect that chuck­ing fruit in it is a dis­trac­tion tech­nique. And, final­ly, there’s a mild irri­ta­tion at the idea that Brent­wood, already a tiny inde­pen­dent brew­ery, needs a ‘craft’ spin-off – where does this kind of weird­ness end?

Sombrero Saison in the glass. (Golden beer.)
Pop­ping the orange cap we were answered with an assertive hiss and man­aged to pour (quite eas­i­ly) a pure gold­en glass of beer topped with a glossy meringue-like head.

At first, we were wor­ried by the aro­ma, which caused some nose wrin­kling. There was a whiff of the old first aid kit about it, some­thing chem­i­cal; or per­haps a peati­ness, but some­how with­out the smoke. For a while, that was over­rid­ing, but it either died away or we got used to it.

Zero­ing on the base beer we found some­thing on thin side, dry, and spicy – a decent enough sai­son, but lack­ing the lux­u­ry of the stan­dard-bear­er for the style, Dupont. Per­haps that’s because it’s only 4.5% ABV – either his­tor­i­cal­ly appro­pri­ate or a kind of ses­sion sai­son, depend­ing on the angle you’re com­ing from.

The pas­sion fruit was dialling its per­for­mance in, offer­ing a whis­per of fruit flavour, but cer­tain­ly not earn­ing it’s star billing. It was about right for us, real­ly – inter­est­ing and intrigu­ing rather than like some­thing that ought to be in a car­ton with a straw through the lid. We did won­der if the fruit was respon­si­ble for a mild acid­i­ty which we could have done with­out.

We detect­ed noth­ing remote­ly minty, which is bet­ter, we sup­pose, than get­ting a gob­ful of it and not lik­ing it.

It could do to be clean­er and, at the same time, to be a bit more inter­est­ing over­all, giv­en the expec­ta­tions set up by the label and descrip­tion. But we did­n’t dis­like it, even if we could­n’t go out of our way to drink it again.

Magical Mystery Pour #26: Colchester Brewery Brazilian

The second Essex beer from a set chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer is a coffee and vanilla porter at 4.6% ABV.

We got it from Essex Food at £3.00 per 330ml bot­tle. Justin says:

Colch­ester Brew­ery use the ‘dou­ble drop’ method, where pri­ma­ry fer­men­ta­tion takes place in one ves­sel before being ‘dropped’ under grav­i­ty to a sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion ves­sel below, in the brew­ing of all their beers. Their Brazil­ian, with its label resem­bling that of a high street cof­fee chain (pure coin­ci­dence) is brewed using Brazil­ian cof­fee and fresh vanil­la pods and is a beer that I’d quite hap­pi­ly end a meal with, hav­ing done so on numer­ous occa­sions.

We have mixed feel­ings about cof­fee beers. Too often they end up tast­ing sick­ly and fake – more like cof­fee cream choco­lates, or cof­fee cake, than the real thing. Or, when they avoid that fate, they can instead end up too seri­ous, harsh and headache-induc­ing. And of course there’s the nov­el­ty fac­tor – is it a stunt, or a prop­er beer? Our gut feel­ing is that prop­er beers sug­gest cof­fee with­out just adding it to the brew.

In this case, too, the Star­bucks-inspired brand­ing did­n’t fill us with hope. It’s such an obvi­ous joke, a cheap shot, that it made us think some­what ill of the beer from the off.

Colchester Brazilian porter in a beer glass.

On open­ing we felt yet more con­cerned. We’ve popped the caps on enough bot­tles over the years to almost be able to feel the char­ac­ter of the beer from the way it feels and sounds at that point. This felt flat and dead. It looked life­less as it went into the glass, too, although as it set­tled a thin tan head did emerge like some kind of mag­ic trick. It also kicked out a sub­stan­tial drift­ing aro­ma of bot­tled bak­ing essences.

And yet, for all those dan­ger signs, we real­ly liked this beer. The cof­fee char­ac­ter was fun rather than tacky and well bal­anced by the under­ly­ing beer – a bit­ter, light-bod­ied, uncom­pro­mis­ing porter that we’d like to try neat by the pint some­time. It was­n’t at all sick­ly – it sug­gest­ed sweet­ness with­out actu­al­ly hav­ing much sug­ar left in it – the sug­ges­tive pow­ers of vanil­la, we sup­pose. What it remind­ed us of in spir­it was those fan­ci­ly-pack­aged sin­gle-estate choco­late bars with, say, baobab, that they sell in the Eden Project gift shop. It was intense with­out being po-faced about it.

What real­ly sealed the deal was when we thought to check the ABV. We’d been assum­ing it was some­thing like 6% – sug­gest­ed by the bot­tle size, per­haps? – and were delight­ed to dis­cov­er that so much flavour was being dished up in such a mod­er­ate­ly alco­holic pack­age.

We’d def­i­nite­ly buy this again and (based on this one encounter) would rec­om­mend it over some much trendi­er, more trendi­ly pack­aged cof­fee stouts/porters we’ve encoun­tered.

The brew­ery has a large range of spe­cial beers includ­ing lots of his­tor­i­cal­ly-inspired recipes – we’ll be look­ing out for them on our trav­els.

Magical Mystery Pour #25: Bishop Nick 1555

For this latest round of Magical Mystery Pour (the fifth) we’ve asked Justin Mason (@1970sboy) to pick us some beers from Essex in the east of England. He’s deeply immersed in the local beer scene as evidenced by his beer blog and the Twitter side project @BeerInEssex.

First, a quick recap of the premise of Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Pour: we ask some­one to pick an online retail­er, choose five or six beers they think we’ll find inter­est­ing in one way or anoth­er, and send us some notes. We then buy the beers, drink them, and write them up.

We approached Justin because the idea behind MMP is to find beers we might oth­er­wise miss and to high­light less talked about brew­eries, and we don’t know Essex beer at all well. Also, we both have fam­i­ly con­nec­tions there, Boak more so than Bai­ley, and share a fas­ci­na­tion with a coun­ty which at one end is tan­gled up in in Lon­don and at the oth­er with East Anglia.

The first beer in this round is 1555, badged as an amber ale, from the Bish­op Nick Brew­ery of Brain­tree. Its ABV is 4.3%. We bought our 500ml bot­tle from Essex Food for £3.10. Justin says:

Bish­op Nick Brew­ery was found­ed from the ash­es of Rid­leys Brew­ery, at one time Essex’s old­est and largest by the son of its last chair­man, and fit­ting­ly 1555 is named after the year that his ances­tor, Nicholas Rid­ley was burnt at the stake for his Protes­tant beliefs in the reign of Bloody Mary. Hopped with Styr­i­an Gold­ings this fruity red ale is one of my ‘go-tos’ if I see it on the bar on in a bot­tle.

We approached this with some wari­ness. The label says hip-young-things, the bot­tle size and the style says trad-as-your-dad, and ‘amber ale’ (i.e. bot­tled bit­ter) is rarely ter­ri­bly excit­ing, even when (espe­cial­ly when?) bot­tle-con­di­tioned, as this is. We’ve sim­ply been burned too often by gush­ers and acci­den­tal lam­bics.

Bishop Nick 1555 in the glass.

But, thank­ful­ly, there was no dra­ma dur­ing pour­ing, just a dis­creet pssst, the right amount of car­bon­a­tion to give a decent pub-style head with­out requir­ing lots of man­age­ment, and well-behaved yeast that stayed put in the bot­tle.

It was bright in the glass and made us want to res­ur­rect the dis­graced descrip­tor ‘pol­ished mahogany’. How about the skin of a fresh­ly-hatched conker for a social real­ist alter­na­tive?

The taste was remark­ably unre­mark­able, which is a good thing. It is square­ly in the brown bit­ter tra­di­tion, but more or less flaw­less­ly exe­cut­ed.

It’s a beer ruled over by malt – round, nut­ty, whole­meal, chew­able. Malt-led beers can often end up tast­ing sug­ary or tof­feeish but there’s none of that here: it’s been prop­er­ly fin­ished and pol­ished, with hops doing their work behind the scenes, out of sight. Well, most­ly – the fur­ther we went, the more we detect­ed a quirky fruiti­ness which might have been Styr­i­an Gold­ings, or the yeast, or a dou­ble act between the two.

It’s hard to say what sets this beer apart but we’d guess it’s some com­bi­na­tion of (a) pre­ci­sion in prac­tice, (b) good ingre­di­ents, and © dis­cern­ing palates. A sim­i­lar brew­ery that came to mind was West­er­ham – if you like their beers, you’ll prob­a­bly like this.

This is a con­ser­v­a­tive beer. It is grand­fa­ther clocks, Nation­al Trust floor­boards and Inspec­tor Morse. Don’t buy it look­ing for Alton Tow­ers and fire­works. Do buy it if you’re the kind of per­son who can find them­selves cap­ti­vat­ed by a rather inter­est­ing carved chan­cel screen.

That price tag, though hard­ly exor­bi­tant, might put some peo­ple off when super­mar­kets are knock­ing out sim­i­lar beers at less – some­times much less – than £2 apiece. Bot­tled But­combe Bit­ter, for exam­ple, is in sim­i­lar ter­ri­to­ry, and sol­id in its own way, but this is bet­ter. Your mon­ey, your choice, and all that.