Barley wine sweep #1: two sort-ofs and a definite

Barley wines round one.

Wednesday night offered a brief window for hunting barley wines (or old ales, or strong ales – BWOASA from now on).

We found two quite similar beers that offered considerable food for thought: Oakham Hawse Buckler and Moor Old Freddy Walker.

We came across the former on cask at the Drapers Arms, our local. At 5.6%, just at the lower end of our ‘strong ale’ bracket, it’s billed as a ‘black beer’, but doesn’t half look like a stout. Obviously. On first tasting, as prickly, sticky hops poked their way through a fairly dry body, we remembered the craze for black IPA of a decade ago.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, it didn’t immediately meet any of our expectations of BWOASA. But the more we drank, the more we noticed a morello cherry, fortified wine character.

* * *

Old Freddy Walker (7.3%) is a beer we’ve known in one form or another for years, now. It’s one of the few relics of when Moor was an old school Somerset real ale brewery rather than the urban craft beer outfit it is today.

It was the only BWOASA we could find on offer at our local speciality beer shop, Bottles & Books, where, frankly, we had hoped to come across at least a few examples. It cost £3.80 for 330ml. It was at this point we began to get mildly anxious: what if there just aren’t any in Bristol right now, as blossom appears on trees and students get their shorts out of storage?

Old Old Freddy was in the Spingo Special style – intensely boozy, syrupy sweet, very brown. The current incarnation, though it takes the name, is black, much drier, and much more evidently hoppy. Grassy and herbal, even.

A bit like Hawse Buckler, in fact.

If OFW is an old ale (that’s how it’s badged) then HB can be one too – especially as HB seemed more luscious, despite the lower ABV.

* * *

Then finally, last night, we found a definite barley wine, also from Moor: Benny Havens, 9.5% in a 330ml can, at £4.25 from Brewer’s Droop on Gloucester Road.

The feller behind the counter was astonished and appalled to realise it was the only barley wine or old ale he had in stock. He pointed to imperial stouts and double IPAs, and had any number of obscure German and Belgian beers, but this particular style… Well, it’s just the wrong time of year, isn’t it?

We bought the one can there was and drank it at home, paired with On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1970.

It really looked the part, this one – golden, bright, with a generous white foam. Instinctively, we thought it tasted right, too, more or less how we always want Gold Label to be. That is, sweet, heavy, smooth, but also with a solid underlying bitterness, perfectly in balance, just up very high. There was maybe a smoky, grainy edge to it, but only faint, and not unappealing. The hops were perhaps a bit rough and rowdy but that would no doubt pass with age. (But… can you age cans?) There were aromas of peach and grape, wrapped up in soothing boozy fug.

Yes, definitely a barley wine, and very decent, too.

But then, a final doubt… didn’t double IPA also taste like this once? In around 2008?

MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer

‘Why aren’t more British breweries tackling German-style wheat beers?’ Adrian Tierney-Jones has asked more than once. Intrigued by that question, we rounded up a few and gave it some thought.

Now, clearly, this isn’t one of our full-on, semi-comprehensive taste-offs — we didn’t have the time, inclination or, frankly, budget to get hold of a bottle of every Weizen currently being made by a UK brewery. One notable omission, for example, is Top Out Schmankerl, recommended to us by Dave S, which we couldn’t easily get hold of.

But we reckon, for starters, six is enough to get a bit of a handle on what’s going on, and perhaps to make a recommendation. We say ‘perhaps’ because the underlying question is this: why would anyone ever buy a British Weizen when the real thing can be picked up almost anywhere for two or three quid a bottle? The most exciting German wheat beer we’ve tasted recently was a bottle of Tucher in our local branch of Wetherspoon — perfectly engineered, bright and lemony, and £2.49 to drink in. How does anyone compete with that?

We drank the following in no particular order over a couple of nights, using proper German wheat beer vases of the appropriate size. What we were looking for was cloudiness, banana and/or bubblegum and/or cloves, a huge fluffy head and, finally, a certain chewiness of texture. That and basic likeability, of course.

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Moor’s Bristol Takeover

Last weekend, to break the journey back from Yorkshire to Cornwall, we stopped over in Bristol and spent an evening accidentally immersed (not literally) in Moor Beer.

When we interviewed Justin Hawke for Brew Britannia, the brewery was based on the sleepy Somerset levels, where its shiny metal and US punk attitude seemed rather out of place.  Last year, however, it relocated to Bristol, which is sometimes called the Capital of the West Country, and which is certainly the heart of the South West’s ‘craft beer revolution’.

We say ‘accidentally’ above because we went out on the town with no fixed plans other than to have a half of something exotic in BrewDog but, a few steps along the waterside from there, we came across the Three Brothers burger restaurant which was proudly displaying to the street a line of shiny keg fonts, most of them bearing Moor’s logo.

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General brilliance, specific problems

Moor Illusion black IPA

By Bailey

My little brother lives in Bristol, a city increasingly awash with interesting beer. Though he’s teetotal, he’s geek enough by nature to have absorbed a certain amount of knowledge about beer from us and from friends, which is why, when he saw a selection of bottles from Moor in a butcher’s shop, an alarm bell rang and he decided to grab one of each available as a Christmas gift for me. (At considerable expense, I gather.)

On opening the package, I beamed. Just as with Butcombe, I can’t help feeling warm towards a brewery from the Shire; and we’ve generally found Moor’s beers to be exciting and interesting, if not always consistent.

Merlin’s Magic (4.7%), a super-hoppy ‘take’ on best bitter, saw me through the helping-Mum-get-things-down-from-high-shelves, pre-dinner milling about phase of Christmas Day. It had zing beyond zing, cutting through the effects of a morning nibbling chocolate with lemon-rind, herbal dryness. As the extended family turned up, everyone insisted on a taste. “Too bitter!” they all said, before layers of complexity hit them and their eyebrows rose upward. “Ooh… nice though.”

Illusion (4.7%) came towards the end of the meal, before desert. It still doesn’t help explain how black IPA is distinct from other types of beer (a hoppy porter, in this case, I think) but did march confidently over duck fat, gravy and English mustard. More zing. Fireworks, in fact. My beer-hating Auntie liked it, too, much to everyone’s amazement. I wanted several more.

Finally, however, a dud: Moor Amoor (also 4.7%, I think, though the website disagrees). A murky, reddish brown rather than the black I’d been expecting from the word porter on the label, its smell was really offputting: I Couldn’t Believe It Wasn’t Butter. Though there was something nutty to enjoy in the taste, overall, I’d rather, honestly, have had a can of Bass or bottle of Guinness. Quality control problems?

At any rate, from our perspective, that last beer is the answer to this question from Simon Johnson:

Or, indeed, to a similar question we asked ourselves back in 2008, when we were only little, and enjoyed an earlier iteration of Amoor under the name Peat Porter.

Hop Smoke Tickling the Brain

Detail from the label of Oakham's Green Devil IPA.

We’re as tired of the fetishisation of hops as much as the next blogger but, despite that, the two beers that have made us sit up and take notice lately have both been showcases for bold hopping.

A couple of weeks ago, we spent a happy afternoon in the back room of the Star Inn, Crowlas, helping Darren ‘Beer Today’ Norbury work through his stash of free beer. The stand out of that session was Oakham’s Green Devil IPA (6%).

When we opened it, a wisp of vapour appeared at the neck, and then the aroma hit us, like smelling salts. If it had been a cartoon, there’d have been green tendrils in the air, curling their way into our noses and throats. Dave, who Darren mentions in his post, isn’t totally convinced by either super hoppy beers or by ‘tasting’ as a pursuit, but even he couldn’t stop himself exclaiming, wide-eyed: “Nettles! Freshly cut grass! Herbs!”

Those cartoon pong trails made a second appearance at the beer festival at the First and Last in Sennen, near Land’s End, last weekend, when we bought our first pints of Moor Nor’Hop (4.1%). Even with a gale blowing; in typical headless festival condition; and from a plastic cup, the fantastic aroma of the beer reached us long before we lifted it to our lips. Can we measure aroma by height? Nor’Hop’s was a towering 75cm or so.

Nor’Hop is also unfined, making it the first such beer we’ve consumed in the wild. Its cloudiness didn’t put us off and might have contributed to a sense we had of its ‘juiciness’; but we think it would probably have tasted just as nice clear. Once we’d found it, we stuck with it, and drank nothing else until it was time to get a bus home through the fog.

Moor Half and Half with the Old Man

The George at Middlezoy is the country pub I’ve been trying to find for some time, not least because it’s one of the few pubs in Somerset I’ve come across that actually sells beer from the Moor Brewery at Ashcott.

On Boxing Day, it was lively and cosy. The landlord and landlady went out of their way to make us feel welcome — there was none of the Slaughtered Lamb atmosphere I’ve become used to in Somerset village pubs. There was some quiet live music and a huge stack of boardgames to keep us entertained. If they hadn’t closed at 4pm, we’d have stayed all day.

Tip: Old Freddie Walker makes a cracking half-and-half with Butcombe Bitter!

Warning: JJJ IPA (9%) is too strong to drink by the pint. Hurgh.

Bailey