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.