Gold or Pale or Mancunian?

Thornbridge Made North.

We’ve been thinking again about how different three pints of ostensible similar yellow beer at c.3.7% can taste depending on which sub-species they belong to.

First, there’s what we think of as ‘hon­ey­ish’ gold­en ales. Exmoor Gold, reck­oned by some to be the first gold­en ale of the mod­ern era, is one exam­ple; Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Gold­en Best might be con­sid­ered anoth­er. Ah-hah, but, you say, that’s real­ly a light mild. And you’re on to some­thing there, because mild is a much bet­ter word than bland, which we used to dis­miss this group a few years ago. These beers might look light but they have a fair bit of body and some resid­ual sweet­ness, end­ing up almost syrupy. ‘Gold’ real­ly works, sug­gest­ing as it does rich­ness and a cer­tain weight.

Then there’s the pale-n-hop­pies. These descend from Hop­back Sum­mer Light­ning, of which more in a moment, and are defined by their extreme pal­lor and high per­fume. They’re usu­al­ly light-bod­ied, too – spritzy. Oakham Cit­ra is a good exam­ple, or Hawk­shead Win­der­mere. A decade ago we used to find this kind of beer hard work, all qui­nine and air fresh­en­er, but tastes change.

Final­ly, there’s an extinct sub-style which has been revived in recent years: the aus­tere­ly bit­ter Man­ches­ter pale ale which has Bod­ding­ton’s as its sole ances­tor. Ray came back from his trip to Sheffield last week­end all abuzz about Thorn­bridge Made North; North­ern Monk’s (defunct?) True North was anoth­er excel­lent exam­ple. Eng­lish or oth­er restrained Euro­pean hops, used pri­mar­i­ly to cre­ate bit­ter­ness, are a defin­ing fea­ture, as is a cer­tain dry­ness, and evi­dent whole­meal malti­ness.

So where does Sum­mer Light­ning sit? We reck­on these days it’s got more in com­mon with the Man­ches­ter sub-style (Ger­man hops, not huge­ly aro­mat­ic, but by no means hon­ey­ish) than the pale-n-hop­py rev­o­lu­tion it inspired, via Roost­er’s Yan­kee. Young’s Bit­ter AKA Ordi­nary, depend­ing on which month you catch it, might almost belong in that group too. Cer­tain­ly when those north­ern lads who found­ed CAMRA end­ed up in Lon­don, it was Young’s to which they turned in the absence of their beloved Bod­dies.

The prob­lem is for the con­sumer is that these beers all look more or less alike, and as we know peo­ple less obsessed with beer than us lot often buy based on some com­bi­na­tion of colour and ABV. If you like Gold­en Best and end up with Oakham Cit­ra  because it’s the right strength and shade, or vice ver­sa, you might feel dis­ap­point­ed. And with­out know­ing the con­text it would be easy to taste one of the Manchester/North ales and think, huh, this pale-n-hop­py from a not­ed pro­duc­er of aro­mat­ic beers is a bit dull.

Per­haps what we’re hop­ing for is some sort of con­ven­tion in nam­ing and labelling. It’s already half there, to be fair: hon­ey­ish beers are often called Some­thing Gold or Gold­en Some­thing, and Bod­ding­ton’s clones seem invari­ably to have ‘Man­ches­ter’ or ‘North’ in their names. And that mid­dle lot… They always spec­i­fy which hops are used on the pump-clip, don’t they?

If a les­son in hops, malt and yeast is Mod­ule One in learn­ing about beer, then per­haps tast­ing these three sub-styles could be one branch to fol­low for Mod­ule Two.

IPA, IPA, or Would You Prefer an IPA?

Derbyshire brewery Thornbridge seems to have gone on an India pale ale (IPA) brewing spree of late. We asked head brewer Rob Lovatt… Why?

Thorn­bridge has a strong claim to being the orig­i­nal British craft brew­ery (def. 2) that begat Brew­Dog, and thus The Ker­nel, and all the oth­ers. Its flag­ship beer is Jaipur, one of the ear­li­est British takes on the high­ly-aro­mat­ic Amer­i­can approach to IPA that has dom­i­nat­ed the last decade, and Hal­cy­on, its 7.4% impe­r­i­al IPA, has also become some­thing of a clas­sic. Sure­ly that’s enough top-rat­ed IPAs for one brew­ery, right?

Well, appar­ent­ly not, because last night we enjoyed Huck, their new (to us) dou­ble IPA, and in the last year they’ve also pro­duced Bear State (West Coast IPA), AM:PM (ses­sion IPA), Wild Raven (a black IPA that was among the first to appear in the UK), and Val­ravn, an Impe­r­i­al Black IPA. Some of those are clear­ly quite dis­tinc­tive­ly dif­fer­ent but there are at four beers fight­ing for more or less the same turf – light in colour, between 5.9–7.4% ABV, and aim­ing to deliv­er big hop aro­ma.

Thorn­bridge isn’t alone in this – Brew­Dog seem to be turn­ing out end­less new IPAs, for exam­ple, each of which leaves us won­der­ing what was wrong with the last one.

So, we asked Rob to help us under­stand the moti­va­tions. Here’s what he had to say stitched togeth­er from sev­er­al emails and slight­ly tweaked for style and clar­i­ty.

B&B: Jaipur has a strong claim to being the orig­i­nal ‘new wave’ British IPA and Hal­cy­on isn’t far behind in terms of rep­u­ta­tion, so why has Thorn­bridge felt the need to pro­duce so many oth­er IPAs in the last year or two?

There are var­i­ous rea­sons. First, IPA sells! As much as I love Ger­man­ic styles, noth­ing sells bet­ter than an IPA. It’s some­what depress­ing as there are so many beau­ti­ful beer styles out there oth­er than IPA, but that’s what the cus­tomer seems to demand.

Sec­ond­ly, we are at a size where we can secure the best qual­i­ty hops in large vol­umes and the hops we’ve secured this year are the best I’ve used to date, so myself and the team are keen to explore dif­fer­ent hop com­bi­na­tions. there is a lot of skill to using hops well and I think Huck is a great exam­ple of hop blend which cre­ates a real flavour hook.

And then there’s the fact that the craft mar­ket has changed: cus­tomers are always demand­ing some­thing new. Here’s a good piece I read on the sub­ject recent­ly. It is chal­leng­ing as we always want to brew the best beer for our cus­tomers [rather than con­stant­ly exper­i­ment­ing] but once we get a real­ly win­ner like Huck it will stay part of the range.

You men­tioned that Jaipur is a clas­sic beer. One thing we haven’t done here is dumb down our most suc­cess­ful beers in order to appeal to a broad­er audi­ence. It’s still at 5.9% and around 60 Euro­pean Bit­ter­ness Units. I don’t think every brew­ery can say that.

B&B: But can you imag­ine a sit­u­a­tion where either Jaipur or Hal­cy­on get retired? Do they still sell as well as they used to?

They are both big sell­ers and they’re still show­ing growth in sales year-on-year. Of course there’s always the risk a new IPA will steal sales from an exist­ing one but offer­ing a broad­er range results in much bet­ter over­all sales.

B&B: How do the new IPAs you’re brew­ing map onto sub-cat­e­gories of the style? What spe­cif­ic kind of IPA is Huck, for exam­ple? Was there a par­tic­u­lar beer from anoth­er brew­ery you were inspired by? Or is it just what it is?

In terms of colour, with Huck, I didn’t want to go blonde as we already have Bear State and Hal­cy­on which are very pale.

Sier­ra Neva­da Tor­pe­do is a beer I real­ly enjoyed and I sup­pose you could say it was loose­ly based on that. The hop blend is com­plete­ly inde­pen­dent of any beer I’ve ever drunk, though – I just had a feel for what would work.

The ABV of 7.4% obvi­ous­ly helps in terms of duty but I do also believe the most drink­able Dou­ble IPAs are in the 7–8% range. Once we start get­ting towards 9% the drink­a­bil­i­ty is com­pro­mised and it’s dif­fi­cult to brew them so they’re not too chewy in the mouth.

* * *

That clears it up a bit for us but also makes us realise how much we rely on broad style dis­tinc­tions when it comes to under­stand­ing a brew­ery’s range – this is their IPAthis is their porter, and so on. The prob­lem is that the sub-cat­e­gories, such as West Coast IPA, don’t instant­ly con­vey any­thing to us. So how do we choose? There are worse prob­lems to have than try­ing lots of IPAs until you find the one you like but there is a com­mu­ni­ca­tion chal­lenge here.

We enjoyed Huck, by the way, which we bought from Beer Ritz at £3.18 for 330ml. It’s very bit­ter, rather dry, with­out the caramel stick­i­ness that some IPAs have at this strength, though we did­n’t get much fruiti­ness from it. We’d prob­a­bly choose it over Hal­cy­on just as, these days, we tend to choose Brew­Dog’s clean­er, lighter-bod­ied Jack­ham­mer over the jar of jam that is Hard­core IPA.

Dis­clo­sure: we’ve had var­i­ous deal­ings with Thorn­bridge over the years but no gifts/samples/freebies since 2014.

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.

Con­tin­ue read­ingMINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on Ger­man Wheat Beer”

Thornbridge Jaipur and BrewDog Punk IPA

Yesterday BrewDog released DIY DOG, a free book containing recipes for every beer they’ve ever produced, and the first thing we did was look at the entry for the original Punk IPA.

We think it’s pret­ty cool that Brew­Dog have released all this infor­ma­tion, not only because it’ll be handy for us as home brew­ers, but also because it enables us to prod about and indulge our nosi­ness.

In Brew Bri­tan­nia we set out how Mar­tin Dick­ie began his career at Thorn­bridge before found­ing Brew­Dog with James Watt. While it’s obvi­ous that both brew­eries’ flag­ship beers, Jaipur and Punk IPA respec­tive­ly, shared cer­tain key char­ac­ter­is­tics, we’ve always won­dered just how close the fam­i­ly resem­blance might be. Or, to put that anoth­er way, was the UK craft beer [def. 2] boom of the last decade or so built around two iter­a­tions of what is essen­tial­ly the same beer?

Thornbridge Brewery as it looked in 2013.
Thorn­bridge Brew­ery as it looked in 2013.

Mitch Steele’s excel­lent home brew­ing man­u­al IPA pub­lished in 2012 (our review here; buy it, it’s great) con­tains instruc­tions for brew­ing a clone of Jaipur. We know from a con­ver­sa­tion we had with brew­ers at Thorn­bridge in 2013 that it’s slight­ly off the mark in that, for one thing, it sug­gests using Vien­na malt which (if we under­stood cor­rect­ly) was actu­al­ly only part of the Jaipur grist for a short while. (Maybe in the peri­od when it Was­n’t the Beer It Used to Be?)

So, with that adjust­ment, and assum­ing Mr Steele’s recipe to be oth­er­wise rough­ly right, here’s how it stacks up against the spec­i­fi­ca­tions Brew­Dog have pro­vid­ed for their orig­i­nal ver­sion of Punk:

c.2009 Jaipur (adjust­ed) 2007 Punk IPA
ABV 6% 6%
Malt Maris Otter pale ale 3.5% EBC ‘Extra Pale’
Mash tem­per­a­ture 65°c 65°c
First hop addi­tion 7.3% Chi­nook
5.2% Cen­ten­ni­al
6.2% Ahtanum(18.7%)
10.2% Chi­nook
11.8% Ahtanum(22%)
Sec­ond addi­tion 7.3% Chi­nook
5.2% Cen­ten­ni­al
6.2% Ahtanum
11.8% Chi­nook
11.8% Crystal(23.8%)
Third addi­tion 21.9% Chi­nook
15.7% Cen­ten­ni­al
25% Ahtanum
18.7% Chi­nook
11.8% Ahtanum
11.8% Crys­tal
11.8% Motueka(54.1%)
Boil time 75 mins ‘we rec­om­mend a 60 minute boil for most ales’
IBU 55–57 60
Yeast ‘neu­tral ale’ Wyeast 1056 (Amer­i­can Ale)
Fer­men­ta­tion temp. 19°c 19°c
Dry hop­ping None None

Those real­ly do look like pret­ty sim­i­lar recipes to our untrained eyes.

Hav­ing said that, there are obvi­ous dif­fer­ences, and also a few impor­tant bits of infor­ma­tion miss­ing – for exam­ple, we don’t know the alpha acid lev­els of the Brew­Dog hops.

So, Experts, it’s over to you: how far would you expect e.g. the final addi­tion Motue­ka in Punk to go in dis­tin­guish­ing one beer from the oth­er? Is that, or any oth­er dif­fer­ence, suf­fi­cient for you to feel Punk was a real­ly dis­tinct prod­uct c.2007?

In the mean­time, that leaves us about where we start­ed, except now we wish we could walk into The Rake at about the time we start­ed blog­ging and order a pint of each to com­pare.

QUICK REVIEW: Thornbridge Eldon

We popped one bottle of this 8% ABV bourbon oak imperial stout into our recent Thornbridge order on a whim and drank it as a full stop to the weekend.

It’s a thick black beer with a dense cof­fee-coloured head. (See above.)

Kevin Eldon.
Actor and come­di­an Kevin Eldon after whom the beer is named. (By Christo­pher William Adach under Cre­ative Com­mons.)

Expect­ing some­thing like whisky-flavoured rock­et fuel we were pleas­ant­ly sur­prised on tast­ing it to find a beer that pulls off the ulti­mate trick: being deep and com­plex, and tast­ing its strength, but with sub­tle­ty and restraint.

Up front, there’s an obvi­ous vanil­la note and just enough sug­ges­tion of bour­bon to have made it worth­while includ­ing in the head­line. The tex­ture on the tongue is so lux­u­ri­ous that it made us want some chur­ros for dip­ping. The over-rid­ing flavour is a grit­ty hard char, like lick­ing coal, but that’s per­fect­ly in bal­ance with the sweet­ness.

If we can fault it it’s because the Thorn­bridge house char­ac­ter these days is a kind of clean pre­ci­sion which, while it works for many oth­er styles, leaves this feel­ing per­haps a bit too polite. At £2.65 it’s not huge­ly more expen­sive than Guin­ness For­eign Extra and is quite a bit bet­ter (we love FES but it can be a bit demer­ara-sug­ary and one-dimen­sion­al) so we reck­on it pass­es Ed’s test but, if push came to shove, we’d prob­a­bly put Har­vey’s filthy Impe­r­i­al Stout ahead. (A fifty-fifty blend of Eldon and Har­vey’s might be even bet­ter…)

IKEA construction instructions.
IKEA’s best-sell­ing veg­etable stor­age cab­i­net after which the beer is named.

In sum­ma­ry, Eldon is a classy, rich, inter­est­ing beer from the Fort­num & Mason of British craft brew­eries. Give it a go if you get the chance, espe­cial­ly if you pre­fer clean to dirty.

It’s actu­al­ly named after Eldon Hole, by the way, despite our silli­ness, and IKEA don’t make a veg­etable cab­i­net called ELDON as far as we know.