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beer reviews Beer styles

In search of ESB – bitter and fruity

The latest coronavirus restrictions now prevent pubs from selling takeaway alcohol, subject to clarifications or U-turns like those that came along under pressure from lobbyists last time, so that looks like an end to our Drapers Arms takeaways for the foreseeable. But at least our final pint was a fantastic ESB.

Severn Brewing Extra Special Bitter just straight-up delighted us: it was dark, fruity and, above all, bitter.

Discussing it, we decided that often when we have a beer describing itself as ESB, it just isn’t bitter enough and it ends up tasting like mild or porter.

Just based on the name, ESB really should be a turbo-charged version of bitter, with some of the dials turned up. In practice, we suppose that means the hopping has to go up to balance the increase in maltiness.

Of course, having had that conversation we looked up our notes from last time we tried Severn’s take – a helpful side effect of maintaining a record of our favourite beers for Patreon round-ups – and found that on that occasion, we did describe it as like a sweet, fruity best mild.

We enjoyed it, but definitely noticed an absence of bitterness.

And, in fact, there were some even earlier notes, from right at the start of 2020, which can probably be summarised as “How DARE they bestow upon this merely adequate brown soup the mighty name of ESB!?”

This made us wonder if freshness might be a factor – that if the beer is a few days or weeks older, it might have dried out and matured.

We thought about the differences in Fullers’ ESB, the template for them all, and perhaps we’ve observed the same thing. Sometimes there’s noticeably more depth of flavour and a richer mouthfeel and, at its worst, it can taste distinctly muddy.

Is ESB fundamentally more of a diva than ordinary bitter? Or maybe the fact that it’s strong (Severn’s is 5.2%) means it tends to hang around a little longer and is more likely to change and evolve at point of sale? 

If only we could test this theory out in some pubs across the country over the next couple of months. We’d be well up for seeing out winter with a focus on this barely-a-style.

In fact, we can still do that: if anyone has got any good suggestions for ESBs that we can order online, do please let us know.

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Beer styles

Bitter on Twitter: which is the quintessential example?

Which are the quintessential cask bitters – those that spring to mind when people think of the style? Our hypothesis: almost always those from established family brewers.

We were promoted to think about this by a question from @casketbeer:

The interesting word there is ‘newer’ and we responded with a lukewarm recommendation for Five Points Best.

To cut a long story short, many Tweets later, we found ourselves suggesting Harvey’s Sussex Best as an example of how older breweries tend to do bitter better.

Are new breweries capable of producing good bitter? Of course they are, especially if you take ‘new’ to mean anything post-CAMRA and the 1970s real ale boom.

But our suspicion is that, if pushed to name one bitter as a perfect example, most people would name a 19th century family brewery beer. So we pushed them:

This question wasn’t worded carelessly.

We specified a three-hour window to avoid people responding with 20-Tweet threads @-ing in every brewery in the UK.

And it being our hypothetical drinker’s one and only pint of bitter would, we hoped, focus minds on suggesting the very best, or at least the very most representative.

We got quite a few responses (if for some reason ‘engagement’ is a key metric for you, try asking people to name a beer they like) and have done our best to tot them up.

There were lots of beers and breweries that got named once. There were quite a few nominations for beers that don’t, in our view, really count as bitter, e.g. St Austell Proper Job.

And even multiple nominations for milds because… look, we’re not sure. Sheer excitement, maybe.

Where people named multiple beers, we took the one they mentioned first as their nomination and ignored the rest.

What we’ve done here is list any beer that got nominated more than once and then rank them by the number of votes.

Brewery Beer Votes
Harvey’s Sussex Best 31
Timothy Taylor Landlord 17
Batham’s Bitter 15
n/a Bass 4
St Austell Tribute 3
Fullers London Pride 3
Adnams Bitter 3
Marble Manchester Bitter 2
Timothy Taylor Boltmaker 2
Woodforde’s Wherry 2

There’s an obvious holy trinity of beers that are way out in front.

It’s interesting that Fuller’s (Asahi), Adnams and St Austell are lurking so far behind and that nobody mentioned, say, Wadworth, or Robinson’s. And Young’s (ownership confusing) got nominated only once.

The only ‘new’ breweries represented at this top table were founded in 1981 (Woodforde’s) and 1997 (Marble).

If you tot up all the nominations for new breweries and treat them as a category, you get to about 14. (We don’t know all the beers named and some might not meet our definition of bitter.) That’s still not enough to beat Harvey’s, Landlord or Batham’s.

So, in conclusion…

A handful of respected old breweries and brands own the idea of bitter. And if you’re in the UK on the hunt, there’s your shopping list.

Notes
  • “But Landlord isn’t a bitter, it’s a pale ale!” Historically, there’s no difference between pale ale and bitter. Anyway, Landlord a similar colour to many other bitters, and a similar strength.
  • “Tribute isn’t a bitter, it’s…” We reckon it’s a calculated clone of Landlord so, see above.
  • “Harvey’s is too weird to be the quintessential bitter.” This is a good point, although we also find Adnams’s pretty strange. And Batham’s too, now you mention it. Maybe being distinctive is part of what makes them great?
Categories
beer reviews Beer styles

Smokey and the Bandit: Rauchbier in the UK

“Good morning. Rauchbier is not a style.” wrote the Beer Nut on Twitter the other day and he might be right, at least in terms of the UK beer scene.

For one thing, there are really only two prominent German brewers of Rauchbier, Schlenkerla and Spezial, both in Bamberg.

What’s more, Schlenkerla’s efforts are the only ones widely and regularly available in the UK, so it’s only natural that they would end up being the reference points for British brewers’ attempts to make them, and the standard against which British drinkers judge them.

Before Christmas, one of our Patreon supporters, Paul Grace, invoked his right to ask us to try beers from particular brewery and pointed us in the direction of Round Corner of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire:

A fully-fledged brewery with T-shirts and glasses printed before they’d made any beer, they’re now getting national exposure with a Rauchbier as part of Brewdog’s Collabfest. The beers I’ve had have been very well made, competent [and] carefully aimed at the target demographic.

We got in touch with Round Corner and arranged to buy cans of Succumb to Smoke at £2.50 each along with a west coast IPA, Hopping Spree, at £3.

We also asked Combie Cryan, co-founder of Round Corner, a few questions by email. He told us that its first beer was brewed in December 2018, the co-founders having met in 2005.

Colin Paige, the brewer, is from Belfast and studied at Heriot Watt in the 1990s. He worked at Hop Back and Fuller’s before going on to work for Lion Nathan at Mac’s in New Zealand. Combie is a businessman and a major investor in Melton Mowbray farmer’s market.

In other words, this is a serious operation with some money and experience behind it, not a bathtub-in-the-shed setup.

Mr Cryan also gave some notes on the brewery’s influences:

We take inspiration from underappreciated classics that we believe deserve wider attention such as the Rauchbiers of Spezial and Schlenkerla in Bamberg. Colin has won awards for his Rauchbier recipe in the past and it remains one of his favourites to make so, after an initial run out at the recent Brewdog Collabfest, do look for Succumb to Smoke in discerning pubs and fridges across the country in the coming months.

Succumb to smoke – can and glass.

To our delight (and let’s be honest, surprise) the beer really was very decent. Billed as a ‘Bamberg style Helles’, it’s clearly an attempt to clone Schlenkerla Helles specifically, and gets about 80% of the way there.

The smoke character is right – an open fire in a forest hut – and the beer beneath the wisps is clean and crisp. Perhaps not crisp enough – more golden ale than lager, with more fruit than feels quite right – and short on carbonation, but a beer we’ll gladly buy on draught if the opportunity ever arises.

If British breweries are going to make Rauchbier, winter is when it will happen, we suppose, which must explain why a second example fell into our laps on the line-up at The Drapers Arms just before Christmas, with an encore last week.

Stroud Fall in a pint glass at the Drapers.

Stroud Brewery’s Fall is billed as a ‘smoked bitter’ which doesn’t sound all that inviting – Doom Bar with a hint of kipper? But we generally find Stroud’s beer to be accomplished and satisfying, and we’re fans of smoked beer in general, so had no reason not to give it a go.

In short, this is a fantastic beer which easily passed the ‘same again’ test.

Stroud’s characteristic balance towards body and sweetness, which sometimes means we feel inclined to dock a pint or two for bitters and pale ales, works really well here, giving a 4.2% ale the feel of something much richer and more boozy.

The smoke is of exactly the same character as Schlenkerla, all bacon and barbecue, but with an underlying cask ale complexity that the bottled version of the Bamberg Mӓrzen tends to lack by the time it’s schlepped across continental Europe and sat on a shelf for a few months. And although not bitter by the standards of the best examples of bitter, the additional hop bite really lifts and balances the smoke.

All of that is why we felt emboldened, on the second encounter last week, to say this:

Of course we’re being provocative but, honestly, we don’t make a habit of making hyperbolic statements and, indeed, have been known to hack people off by sticking up for classic beers that cooler folk than us reckon to be passé. Yes, if we could be magically transported to the brewery tap in Bamberg and taste it there – oh, the fruitiness! – we might not make the comparison, but we’d rather drink this beer from a nearby brewery than a bottle of Schlenkerla Mӓrzen if given the option.

Unfortunately, Rauchbier is Rauchbier – the very definition of an acquired taste. Drinkers at The Drapers didn’t seem keen and the fact that the latest cask has been on sale for several days tells a story.

We suspect it might do better in craft beer bars where people tend to be actively in search of unusual flavours, but who knows.

A final thought: is there room in the market for a specialist bar or two focused on lager and German styles? This isn’t a complaint about how ‘it’s all IPA these days’ so much as a plea for someone to seize a wide-open gap in the market.

We’d be quite happy to see a line-up of Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, Stroud Rauchbier, Otter Tarka (a Jever clone), Bath Ales Sulis, Zero Degrees Vienna lager and so on.

Which are your favourite UK takes on Rauchbier? We’ve heard Torrside are good at this though we’ve not had chance to try their beers ourselves.

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Beer styles

Mild is dead, long live the new mild

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

A couple of weeks ago, Roger Protz quoted a Black Country brewer foretelling the eventual death of mild along with the passing of those who regularly drink it. But what if it’s just mutated?

We once wrote about a resurgence in the popularity of mild not as a mainstream beer style but as a niche oddity, like milk stout or Berliner Weisse.

We still think that’s about right – that what is dead, or dying, is the standard three-point-something ABV dark mild that too often tastes like watered down stout or, worse, watered down mild.

What hadn’t quite occurred to us, though, until we listened to our own middle-aged grumbling, was that mild might have faked its own death before sneaking back into the room with a different hat on.

Forget beer styles, forget beer history, and think about utility: what do English drinkers seem to want?

A beer they can drink four pints of without too much damage.

A beer that doesn’t demand lots of attention while being drunk – that goes down easily and addresses thirst.

That isn’t bitter, or dry and, indeed, might even be called sweet.

For much of the 20th century, that was mild.

Then, for about 40 years, it was so-called cooking lager – the kind of stuff that apalled Rheinheitsgebotists but which British drinkers took to overwhelmingly from the 1970s onward.

But now… Could it be soft, hazy session IPA?

Circa 4%. Not bitter, perhaps even sugary. And undemanding, unless you’re hung up on haze, with fruit juice and soft drink citrus flavours rather than the brittle hop spikiness.

One data point does not prove the case but it’s certainly fascinating to see the degree to which Ray’s dad, previously a keen mild drinker, has taken to beers like Moor Nor’Hop.

Categories
Beer styles real ale

The BADRAG effect – a choice of milds

Do you know how nice it is to be able to go into your local two nights in a row and order a decent ordinary dark mild?

Bristol and District Rare Ales Group, or BADRAG, campaigns for wider availability of stout, porter, old ale and mild. This year, hacked off with the madness of May as CAMRA’s official month of mild, it decided to launch its own bonus mild event in November, when dark beer has much more appeal.

As that happened to coincide with a beer festival at The Drapers Arms, we were treated to something remarkable on Saturday: a choice of three milds.

Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild is a classic, of course, but at 6%, not one you can settle on. No, the beer that caught our eye (and Ray’s especially) was Future Proof, a 3.3% traditional dark mild from Bristol Beer Factory.

We’ve got a soft spot for this well-established Bristol brewery even though, as one of our fellow drinkers put it, “They’re having some sort of midlife crisis at the moment”, no longer being hip or new.

With that in mind, dark mild is an interesting choice. We’d like to think it suggests confidence – so we’re middle-aged, deal with it – but it might just be the BADRAG effect.

Tasting notes on mild, like tasting notes on ordinary lager, can be a struggle, like trying to write poetry about council grit bins. Good mild is enjoyable and functional but, by its nature, unassuming, muted and mellow.

Still, let’s have a go: dark sugars and prune juice, the body of bedtime cocoa, hints of Welsh-cake spice, and with just enough bite and dryness to make one pint follow naturally into the next.

It’s a really great example of this endangered style, in line with the best of the output from the old family breweries.

Is mild ‘back’? Is a great revival underway? Well, probably not – you win some, you lose some – but it feels like good news that we’ve been able to manage two sessions on mild in the past month without making a special effort.