Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke

When I was a kid we used to go to my uncle’s house in Lon­don… The heat and light crack­ling sound of the fire, mixed with the smell of his oak-pan­elled room, his tobac­co and the whisky by his leather chair, always bring Christ­mas of my child­hood strong­ly to my thoughts… We cre­at­ed a dish… based on the mem­o­ry… We set the frozen apple sor­bet on fire with a whisky blend, while dry ice bel­lows from the leather plate car­ry­ing the smell of leather, wood, fire, tobac­co and whisky. We even have the crack­ling sound of the burn­ing logs com­ing from the dish.”

Hes­ton Blu­men­thal

The very idea of a beer based on a historic recipe – the chance to share a sensory experience with our ancestors – gets us excited.

Pack­ag­ing alone can build expec­ta­tion, sug­gest­ing a swirl of fog, soot in the air, and the dis­tant pip­ing of a bar­rel organ, with a few tricks of typog­ra­phy and the promi­nent place­ment of an evoca­tive date: 1913, 1891, 1884, 1880… (Like the dash­board on Rod Tay­lor’s time Machine.)

How his­toric are some of these recipes? Many are mere­ly ‘inspired by’ some­thing from the archives, while oth­ers are painstak­ing recre­ations. While we pre­fer the lat­ter, we’re also more than will­ing to play along with the for­mer, just as we would be with Hes­ton Blu­men­thal’s sen­so­ry manip­u­la­tions.

Read our tasting notes after the jump →

Companionable Silence With Westerham

Westerham beer bottle cap on a map of Kent.

Westerham Brewery of Kent share with their bigger neighbours, Shepherd Neame, an apparent fixation on World War II, and a certain conservatism in their style of brewing.

Based on the five bot­tled beers we’ve tried this week, how­ev­er, we’d say West­er­ham has one big advan­tage over SN: a super­star yeast strain. It was cul­ti­vat­ed from a 1959 sam­ple from West­er­ham’s orig­i­nal Black Eagle Brew­ery, tak­en over by Ind Coope and closed down in 1965, sleep­ing peace­ful­ly while oth­er brew­eries’ yeasts were ‘cleaned up’ and so lost their char­ac­ter. It seems to add lay­ers of com­plex­i­ty to even fair­ly ‘stan­dard’, clean­ly made beers.

William Wilber­force Free­dom Ale (4.8% ABV, bot­tle-con­di­tioned) is side­board brown and offers lots of tof­fee and caramel, but is also notably clean. The use of (Fair­trade) sug­ar (an inex­plic­a­ble taboo in self-con­scious­ly ‘craft’ brew­ing) adds some dry­ness that is miss­ing from some sim­i­lar beers. It is not excit­ing, as such, but we found it extreme­ly sat­is­fy­ing.

Scot­ney Pale Ale (4%) is the palest beer in the range – lighter than, say, the amber of Young’s Ordi­nary, but cer­tain­ly no ‘pale’n’hop­py’ lager-alike. There are ghosts of tan­ger­ine and pine from the hops, but it stops short of flow­ery or per­fumed. It has a fair­ly intense bit­ter­ness which sucks the cheeks in. Over­all, we’d call it clean, spicy and Eng­lish.

We’ve been con­di­tioned to expect from an IPA either (a) huge amounts of cit­rusy hop aro­ma or (b) no hop aro­ma at all (Greene King). Viceroy India Pale Ale (5%) is some­where in the mid­dle, along­side Wor­thing­ton White Shield. The bit­ter­ness is pro­nounced – almost too much, but not quite – and with a tan­nic qual­i­ty we asso­ciate with prop­er­ly brewed tea. We also got more spice, this time almost Christ­massy (cin­na­mon?). There was the faintest hint of a not-quite-right savoury flavour as we neared the end of the bot­tle, but the big hops defeat­ed it.

Scot­ney Best Bit­ter (4.3%) was, for us, the only clanger: all tof­fee and caramel, and not much else, along the lines of Sharp’s Doom Bar. If you like this style of beer, how­ev­er, you might appre­ci­ate that this is more bit­ter than many exam­ples.

British BulldogBritish Bull­dog (4.3%, bot­tle con­di­tioned), with Win­ston Churchill on the label, was, in some ways, the most inter­est­ing of the bunch. Osten­si­bly sim­i­lar to Scot­ney Best, it seemed paler in colour and was far more com­plex. Bot­tle-con­di­tion­ing gave it an extra zing and extreme­ly draught-like. It took a moment or two before we realised: it’s a dead ringer for cask Fuller’s Lon­don Pride at its best. We detect­ed a very faint roasti­ness, a spot of green apple, some sweet orange peel, and numer­ous oth­er flavours and aro­mas which, dialled right down and blend­ed togeth­er, made it sub­tle and fas­ci­nat­ing. Our clum­sy pour­ing gave it a slight haze but no ‘floaters’. One to buy by the case.

These are beers that, on the whole, don’t demand your atten­tion – they are nei­ther hard work nor aggres­sive – but, at the same time, are from from bland. They keep a com­pan­ion­able silence.

DISCLOSURE: Robert Wicks at West­er­ham sent us sam­ples of his Audit Ale and Dou­ble Stout because we’ve expressed an inter­est in beers brewed to his­toric recipes in the past. We’ll be writ­ing about them in a future post along with some sim­i­lar beers we’ve accu­mu­lat­ed. The beers men­tioned above were includ­ed to fill up the box.