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 IPA, this 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 reading “MINI 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
ORIGINAL GRAVITY 1.055 1.056
TARGET FINAL GRAVITY 1.010 1.010
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
-(18.7%)
11.8% Chinook


11.8% Crystal(23.8%)
Third addition 21.9% Chinook
15.7% Centennial
25% Ahtanum

-(62.6%)
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.

Bars That Brew, Brewers With Bars

When we were in the research phase of Brew Britannia during 2013 we thought we observed a nascent trend: the cutting out of middle men.

A few years ago, there was a fairly cosy relationship between brewers, bar owners and distributors serving a nascent  ‘craft beer’ (definition 2) market, each taking a slice of the cost of a third of IPA.

But brewers seem often to feel frustrated at the fact that their reputation so often relies on the care with which their product is presented by third parties — assuming, of course, that they can even get any pubs or bars to stock their beer. The building of a tap room or the acquisition of a tied pub is an obvious solution to these problems.

Continue reading “Bars That Brew, Brewers With Bars”

QUOTE: Outside Influences

“What we had done by hiring an Italian [Stefano Cossi] and Martin [Dickie] straight out of Heriot-Watt was get people who weren’t weighed down by tradition. We’ve continued to hire brewers from overseas, like Kelly Ryan who joined just before Martin Dickie left in 2006, because that helps to keep things fresh, and makes it possible to stay ahead of some of the very good breweries that are now getting established… Each of the brewers we’ve had has left something behind, and we’re still brewing beers created by a Steff, a Martin or a Kelly amongst others…”

Simon Webster, co-founder of Thornbridge, from an interview we conducted in 2013. This is an extended version of a quotation given on p.199 of Brew Britannia.

Reflections on our Northern Tour

Revitalisation beer pump clip.

Last week’s visit to the north of England (Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield) was actually as near as we’re getting to a holiday this year.

We figured that, even if we didn’t get chance to plug Brew Britannia, we’d at least have fun drinking decent beer in great pubs and bars, and seeing the sights. But, as it happened, we were invited to appear and/or speak at a few venues.

psbh

At Port Street Beer House on Sunday afternoon, we were in competition with blazing sunlight which had turned Manchester into a dead ringer for Barcelona. Nonetheless, several people turned up to share a beer with us and buy advance copies of the book.

It was great to meet everyone, but we have to admit that we were especially pleased to make the acquaintance of Len, a reader who usually ‘lurks’, and who settled our nerves with a few kind words in the first few minutes.

We also found ourselves thinking that someone — maybe us — ought to write a proper portrait piece about 6TownsMart, whose commitment to, and first-hand knowledge of, Belgian beer is awe-inspiring. ‘Brewers as rock stars’ is a well-worn angle, but dedicated drinkers deserve some attention too.

At North Bar in Leeds on Monday, we got to try the Kirkstall Brewery beer Revitalisation, thoughtfully developed by Matt Lovatt from some vague thoughts we put in an email. We drank lots of it, and it prompted plenty of conversation among the Leeds crafterati, as well as finding favour with a few of the locals with more conservative tastes. We’ll write more about it in a substantial post about Boddington’s to follow in the next week or so.

We did our best to give a reading, but our puny voices struggled a bit against the non-stop partying which characterises the venue. Someone made us drink tequila, and Ghost Drinker plied us with wonderful, wonderful gueuze. We signed and sold a lot of copies of the book, which saved us lugging any back to Manchester, though the 20 copies of The Grist we acquired were heavier and more awkwardly shaped.

We had two engagements in Sheffield. First, at the Thornbridge-owned Hallamshire House, on Wednesday night. This was the first actual ‘talk’ we gave. Forty or so people, many of them actually there for a German student’s birthday drinks, listened politely as we spoke about the origins of the term ‘craft beer’. Some sidled up with questions, including, to our delight, the German birthday boy, who wanted to know why porter was so hard to find: “Ah,” he said on hearing our off-the-cuff answer. “This is the same as with Dortmund Export.”

We were delighted to meet Jim Harrison, one of the founders of Thornbridge — he is a very charming man — but cringed as we watched he and his wife read what we’d written about them in the book from across the room. They didn’t take offence, but seemed perhaps a little hurt that we’d portrayed them as ‘lordly’: “I came on the bus tonight.”

As the crowd thinned, we were joined by Thornbridge brewers Rob Lovatt and Will Inman, who indulged our naive questions about processes and yeast, and politely disagreed with a couple of our thoughts on Thornbridge’s beer. Very civilised.

The cafe next door to the Hop Hideout.

We finished on a real high note with a ticketed talk at the Hop Hideout on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. It is a tiny but lovingly-managed specialist beer shop in the corner of a larger unit selling vintage… stuff, so the talk actually took place in the cafe next door. With blinds drawn, it felt like a lock-in or speakeasy, and talking to a crowd who wanted to be there was a real treat.

Over the course of a couple of hours, we tasted:

  • John Smith’s Bitter — a ‘palate cleanser’ and reminder of the ‘bad old days’.
  • Chimay Rouge — the first ‘world beer’ to hit the UK, in 1974.
  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — highly influential on the use of hops in British brewing.
  • Marble Dobber — the kind of beer British brewers made once they’d ‘got’ New World hops, and with a tentative connection to Brendan Dobbin.
  • Camden Hells — exemplifying the post-1990s trend for ‘craft lager’, and exploring questions of provenance.
  • Wild Beer Co Ninkasi — exploring the ‘outer limits’ of diversity in British beer, and finishing on a showstopper.

Most people seemed to agree that Chimay was cruelly overlooked these days; that SNPA was still a really good beer; that Dobber was on fantastically good form; and that Ninkasi was extremely complex and interesting. Watching someone smell the Cascade aroma of SNPA for the first time was a treat, too.

We’ll be in London in the week commencing 16 June and will hopefully be able to announce a programme of appearances in the coming days. We’re also at Beer Wolf in Falmouth, Cornwall, on 28 June from 4pm. Come and see us somewhere, at some time!

The Black Hole of Craft Beer

Black holes in space have yet to be directly observed, and their presence can only be inferred through their interaction with other matter and light.

Recent events in the world of beer suggest that ‘craft beer’ might operate in the same way. There’s no agreed definition in the UK, and yet we can all tell when the actions of breweries are being distorted by its mysterious presence.

First, locally, we’ve observed the recent roll-out of a rebranded St Austell ‘Proper Cool’ keg IPA. Does this design and copy remind you of anyone?

St Austell Proper Cool beer mat.

Though St Austell don’t use the C-word themselves, here’s how we heard a barman explain this beer to a customer: “You know Proper Job? Well it’s a craft version of that.”

St Austell can claim to have been doing ‘craft’ (US-hopped IPA, beers with spices) since before ‘craft’ was really a thing, so it’s weird to see them aping BrewDog so openly, especially as it’s a bit ‘Dad in a baseball cap’. (They have literally declared themselves cool.)

Then, further north, this fascinating blog post emerged from Thornbridge’s head brewer, Rob Lovatt, announcing the arrival of a Parma Violet porter, and explaining its place in their new ‘Left Field Beer Project’. It seems to us that his teeth are gritted:

All of my brewing team will tell you that I’m very style-oriented and I take some persuading to even put the slightest twist on a classic beer style. 

When we visited Thornbridge last year, we detected a (good natured and probably healthy) tension between a conservative lobby focused on tradition, and those who wanted to be more playful and experimental. Parma Violet is, we think, is driven by the latter, and an attempt to do something a bit more ‘craft’, whatever exactly that means. Others made the same suggestion on Twitter:

Disclosure: we have had various dealings with both St Austell and Thornbridge, and are speaking at a Thornbridge pub next week, on 21 May. We’re not scientists — sorry if we got black holes wrong in our attempt at a rhetorical flourish.

Kölsch as a Test of Mettle

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

Kölsch, the native beer style of the city of Cologne, is subtle at best, and bland at its worst.

One of our earliest self-imposed challenges back in 2007 was trying to perceive any difference between Kölsch and other pale German ‘lagers’, and to identify any differences between the various brands. (Excuse our naive references to ‘ale’…)

We were interested to hear, therefore, that London brewery Meantime uses Cologne as a proving ground for their beer-sommeliers-in-training. This is an excellent idea, and makes perfect sense for a brewery which specialises in rather tasteful German-style beers.

Until recently, we would have said that there was no point in drinking Kölsch anywhere but on its home turf. On the way to the UK in kegs or bottles, it generally seems to lose whatever slight magic makes it worth drinking, especially when dumped into a pint glass.

Thornbridge Tzara has changed our minds. Having enjoyed it by the pint at the Craft Beer Company in Brixton on a hot summer evening last year, we didn’t hesitate to order a case during the Derbyshire brewery’s recent free shipping spree (12 bottles for £23.80). We dug out a couple of dainty 200ml glasses and have demolished most of that case in the last fortnight.

If we’d been mugged by Tzara, our description wouldn’t help the police at all: it has no especially distinguishing features that would, on paper, set it apart from most other decent, balanced lager beers. It is a pale yellow, hinting at green, and has a fluffy white head. There are some bubbles. If we try really hard, we can perhaps detect some fresh herb (mint?) and soft-fruit (strawberry) aroma, and also maybe a reminder of crisp pizza dough.

What it is is completely, perfectly, gleaming clean; and as fresh-tasting as if it had just been hoisted up in a barrel from the cellar of a wood-panelled beer hall in the shadow of the Kölner Dom. All the ‘hints’ and ‘notes’ in the world can’t beat that.

Kölsch, then, is a test for the palate, a challenge for the technically minded brewer, and yet, at the same time, a rather uncomplicated beer that can be enjoyed for £2 a bottle. What’s not to like?