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: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?

“I was drinking a bottle of Proper Job yesterday and thinking about how I only started buying it after reading your blog. Later, I drank some Beavertown Gamma Ray and Magic Rock Cannonball and wondered if, by drinking fancy craft beers usually modelled on American style, I was missing something. Can you recommend any perennial British beers, the kind of thing you perhaps take for granted but that might have been overlooked by people who’ve only come to love beer since craft really took off?”* — Brendan, Leeds

That’s an interesting question and, let’s face it, exactly the kind of thing we semi-professional beer bores dream of being asked.

To prevent ourselves going on for 5,000 words we’re going to set a limit of five beers, and stick to those available in bottles, although we’ll mention where there’s a cask version and if it’s better. We’re also going to avoid the temptation to list historically significant beers that we don’t actually like all that much — those listed below are beers we buy regularly and actually enjoy drinking.

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Stout is a big, intimidatingly flavoursome, heavy metal tour of a beer that makes a lot of trendier interpretations look tame. It was first brewed in the 1990s to a historically inspired recipe. We didn’t used to like it — it was too intense for us, and some people reckon it smells too funky– but now, it’s kind of a benchmark: if your experimental £22 a bottle limited edition imperial stout doesn’t taste madder and/or better than this, why are you wasting our time? It’s available from Harvey’s own web store.

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Stumbling Upon a Gem

We went to Cheltenham to look at buildings and so did no research whatsoever into pubs and beer, but luck was on our side when we found the Sandford Park Alehouse.

After an hour or two’s nosing around, we eventually got hungry and thirsty, at which point, we saw a sign outside a plain-looking, white-painted building: CHEESE TOASTIES £4.99. ‘That’ll do,’ we said, and went in.

Immediately, our Spidey-senses began to tingle: a map of Belgium? As in the country where the beer comes from? Our first glimpse of the bar confirmed our suspicion: somehow, we had managed to stumble upon Cheltenham’s own ‘craft beer bar’.

Sandford Park Alehouse: bar.

A bright, airy, multi-room pub with décor just cosy enough to prevent it feeling sterile, enlivened considerably by maps on every wall. It reminded us, in fact, of Cask in Pimlico before it got its corporate makeover.

There was also lots of beer, though the selection wasn’t as large as at some better-known bars, and was perhaps also (thankfully?) a touch more conservative. A row of hand pumps offered cask ales from multiple Golden Pint nominees Oakham, among others. We couldn’t fault the condition of Oakham Citra or Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, though we wish we hadn’t drunk them in that order. (You can’t come back down the hop-ladder.)

zwicklThe real highlight was a kegged beer from Germany, via a row of taps behind the bar. Bayreuther Bierbrauerei Zwickl, at £3.90 a pint, didn’t seem exorbitantly priced (we pay £3.40+ for Doom Bar in Penzance) but we hesitated until the barman leaned over conspiratorially and said, ‘It’s served in one of these’, waving a narrow, handled ceramic mug. ‘People who like this beer really love it,’ he told us, and he was right. It was a Bavarian holiday in a jug — a little sweetness, gentle lemon-rind notes, and just enough dryness at the end to prompt another swig. It was probably (intentionally) cloudy, but we couldn’t tell, and didn’t care.

Once we’d got comfortable under a fascinating map of the Middle East, it was hard to move, and we drank one more than we had intended as we observed the crowd. The people around us were a little more middle-aged and tweedy than at the ‘craft’ places in Bristol, perhaps, but then that might just be Cheltenham. We, hurtling into middle age (though not yet into tweed), felt quite at home.

On the basis of this first visit, it felt as if the Sandford Park Alehouse might as well have been designed with us in mind, and, when we visit Cheltenham again, it will be with the specific intention of verifying that feeling with a second equally lengthy session in the same cosy corner.

The Sandford Park Alehouse is at 20 High Street, ten minutes walk from the city centre, and 30 minutes from the station.

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.

CAMRA Kernow Festival, Falmouth

Detail from the logo of CAMRA Kernow

Having moved to Penzance proper from a village a few weeks ago, we suddenly find ourselves much better connected by public transport, and so getting up to Falmouth for the CAMRA Kernow beer festival on Saturday was a doddle.

Even as we approached the venue from the station, we could tell it was going to be good: the streets were crowded much like the approach to a football ground on match day. The venue itself was busy — almost chaotic — but the startled looking volunteers were nonetheless fast and efficient and had us inside, pints in hand, within five minute of hitting the door. Impressive.

Now, there was plenty of Cornish and other West Country beer on offer but, frankly, we can get that any day of the week so we made a beeline for what we’ve been missing the most since the move: proper northern beer.

We knew Steel City Brewing’s Escafeld would be hoppy and weren’t disappointed: it smelled of mown grass, and tasted something like a good, sharp gooseberry jam. Kelham Island’s Now That’s What I Call Bitter was exactly the kind of flinty, crisp, pale and hoppy beer we’d been dreaming of. It took us right back to Sheffield in an instant. And we couldn’t resist an old favourite — Thornbridge Kipling. Can you believe we’ve gone more than six months without a pint of anything from Thornbridge? Weird.

We didn’t just drink beers from up north, though, and also dug into the very decent selection from Oakham, reminding ourselves that this brewery (whose products we don’t see enough of) are up there with Dark Star, Crouch Vale and other favourites of ours. Black Hole Porter was the standout.

Not for the first time, we’ve been very impressed by a regional festival in a way that we aren’t generally by the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF). Why? Perhaps because there’s less overwhelming choice; a different crowd — locals, students, passing hippies; and a cosier venue? We’ll keep pondering this.

Of course, the real  buzz was about the toilets: many of the women in attendance were gleeful at a turning of the tables which saw them walking straight in while the gents queued for a urinal. “I wouldn’t use the sink in the disabled toilet if I were you.” Eeew.

Back to Oxford

It looks like we’ll be in Oxford at around this time most years now as a friend of ours who lives there has decided to make his anti-January-blues party a fixture in the calendar.

Between the station and his house last night, we took in a few pubs we missed last time round.

The King’s Arms on Holywell Street is a cosy, crowded boozer decorated with brewery memorabilia. It’s a Young’s pub but with three guest ales. Bailey went for Winter Warmer and thought it was good this year. Boak went for Bath Gem, an old favourite that we haven’t come across for a while, which was just about OK if perhaps a little tired. The pub is so full of character, though, that the beer’s almost irrelevant.

The White Horse on Broad Street is really a long, cluttered corridor, but is also very cosy. We were drawn in by the Brakspear sign but the lack of that beer was more than made up for by two excellent microbrews. Prospect by the Shotover Brewing Co. (who are new on the scene, apparently) was a beautiful hoppy, flowery beer, powerful enough to overpower a bag of particularly lethal, hairy pork scratchings. Can anyone tells us which particular variety of hops give that wonderful elderflower flavour? In contrast, Winter Solstice by Vale Brewing was all about the malt: caramel with a hint of chocolate. It was also excellent, but it was Prospect that really knocked us for six.

Far from the Madding Crowd had six ales on tap including Oakham JHB, another classic we’ve not had for a while. Wow. What a beer — incredibly drinkable. Easy Rider from Kelham Island was another corker with a slightly (and very pleasantly) sulphurous aroma. The pub itself was lacking in atmosphere, somewhat resembling a community centre. Those of you who are sceptical of our ability to taste anything through the pork scratchings in the last pub will be glad to hear we didn’t indulge in the cockles in offer here…

Beers of the Year

An irrelevant photo of an old Guinness marketing gewgaw in Clapham, South London
An irrelevant photo of an old Guinness marketing gewgaw in Clapham, South London

This year, we’ve been all over the place, including almost a full month in Germany, so we’ve had plenty of opportunity to stretch our palates (corrective surgery scheduled for the New Year). After some bickering in the pub, and in no particular order, here are the 10 beers we’ve tried and enjoyed the most in 2008.

  1. Uerige Alt — like a British ale, but not, thanks to some subtle, intangible quality of the yeast and the wonderful, alien manners and customs of the Duesseldorf pub scene.
  2. Oakham Hawse Buckler — dark, strong, heavy, hoppy as Hell, with that combination of chocolate orange/coffee and grapefruit people either love or hate.
  3. Zywiec Porter — was this sticky, treacly Baltic porter as good as we thought, or were we just delighted to finally get our hands on it after a couple of years hunting?
  4. Brewdog Punk IPA — smart marketing means we’ll be seeing this being swigged from the bottle by trendy types all over the country by next Christmas. And a good thing too, as it’s full of flavour and full of life.
  5. SternBrau-Scheubel dunkel-rauch — the highlight of the first Zeitgeist beer festival, organised by Stonch and Biermania, was this smoky, amber wonder which was so good, we drank them dry.
  6. Mahrs Brau Ungespundete — our return trip to Bamberg was a bit of ticking session but this is one beer of which we wanted second-helpings: dark, cloudy, spicy and liquorice-like.
  7. Vollbier, Brauerei Meister, Unterszaunsbach — this dark, ale-like dark German beer tasted great, although that might have been something to do with the fact we’d trekked over most of Franconia to get to it, and because the lady in the pub was nice to us…
  8. U Fleku, Prague — treacly sweet and fruity sour, the black beer here is a wonder; shame the pub’s such a world-class hole.
  9. Kout na Sumave desitka, Prague — we’d never have found this one ourselves — Velky Al recently described is as the best lager in the Czech republic.  Haven’t had enough Czech beers to compare (can one ever?) but this was a beautiful easy-drinker with an impressive hop flavour.
  10. Frueh Koelsch (but not out of a bottle) — we weren’t that impressed when we first tried Frueh at the brewery tap in Cologne, but have now been back twice — it’s so subtle and so perfect that it’s become our favourite whenever we’re passing through Cologne.

Velky Al has been rounding up his beers of the year, which is where we nicked the idea what inspired us.

A British answer to Great Divide Yeti?

Oakham Ales‘ Hawse Buckler is just the thing for a cosy pub on a chilly autumn evening.

Thanks to the handy colour coding chart in the Helter Skelter in Frodsham, Cheshire, I spotted that it was the only black beer on offer and ordered a pint before I’d clocked the strength – a not insignificant 5.6%.

It was black, with a beautiful tan head, which I’m always pleased to see on a dark beer. The first sip was one of those rare moments where a smile spread across my face before I’d even had chance to engage my brain. I was instantly reminded of a beer which seems to divide opinion — Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stout.

Oakham reckon HB is a porter, but it’s got enough body to justify calling itself stout. It’s got all the coffee and chocolate flavours you’d expect up front, followed by a massive smack of citrusy, sharp, grapefruity hops. These flavours don’t work together, but they sure as Hell contrast nicely. It’s like drinking two different beers at the same time and therefore an extremely stimulating experience.

Yes, it’s a bit extreme, and, no, I couldn’t drink it all night, but it is exactly what it claims to be — ‘a special’. I’m not surprised it won best strong dark ale, best dark ale and was a contender for the world’s best overall ale at the World Beer Awards this year.

Maieb is also a fan of Hawse Buckler. And Beer Justice answers our queries about why the Helter Skelter isn’t in the Good Beer Guide here.

Bailey