Hoover, Google, Orval?

Orval label.

For a long time, Orval was the only Orval, not quite belonging to any particular style. Now, it has company.

In their 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn classified it as a pale ale; Stan Hieronymus, in Brew Like a Monk, mentions that it shares flavour characteristics with “the saison-style beers of the surrounding region”; Beer historian Ron Pattinson has often referred to it as an India Pale Ale; while Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson effectively dodged the question altogether by classifying it simply as an Abbey/Trappist beer, observing that “Orval is one of the world’s most distinctive beers”. The American Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP) also concedes defeat, citing Orval as an example of Belgian Speciality Ale, “a catch-all category for any Belgian-style beer not fitting any other Belgian style category”.

While it’s possible to make all sorts of clever, heavily footnoted arguments for Orval belonging to one category or another (“Die Hard is a Christmas movie!”) none of them are quite convincing. The fact is that if someone who knew nothing about bought it expecting a pale ale, any kind of IPA, Saison Dupont, or Westmalle Brune, they would be confused and possibly disappointed. Sure, the base beer might bear some resemblance to others, but that Brettanomyces that stamps over everything, marking its territory with layers of dust and leather. (But not sourness.)

In the last decade or so there have been more beers made with Brettanomyces, often with the word ‘Bretted’ on the packaging or point-of-sale display, but few of those we encountered resembled Orval. IT seemed to us that they tended to be modern-style IPAs with lots of New World hop perfume and flavour, or big stouts. Perhaps there was a sense that Orval was off limits for commercial homage? Sacred, somehow. Or perhaps it was simply unapproachable — unless your Orval clone is as good as the real thing, or better than, why bother?

Bruxellensis label.

Then we encountered Brasserie de la Senne’s Bruxellensis. It was first released, we think, in June 2016, and when we came across it last year we didn’t need to do any reading to get the idea: it’s Orval, but not quite. The same funkiness, the same balance of dryness and fruitiness, but brasher, brassier and brighter. Like a punk cover version.

It turns out there are others, though — beers that we missed because we weren’t paying attention, didn’t have access (most are American), or maybe simply because we hadn’t got to know Orval well enough to recognise them as clones. Heather Vandenengel rounded up a few for All About Beer back in 2015, including Goose Island Matilda. This is one we did try, as long ago as 2010, when it struck as nothing more than a bog standard Belgian-style blonde. On Twitter Andrew Drinkwater mentioned Hill Farmstead Dorothy as another example.

What made us think about all this now is a Tweet from Chris Hall announcing the arrival of British brewery Burning Sky’s take:

We’re going to have to get hold of this one, ideally in a bottle, ideally to be tasted alongside the real thing, Bruxellensis, and any others available in the UK that you lot might be able to tell us about.

But we can’t keep calling these beers Orval clones forever, can we? We like Pete Brissenden’s suggestion of dry-hopped Bretted ale, or DHBA. It looks ugly but it does rather roll off the tongue, and is purely, precisely descriptive. It’ll do for now.

Two Jacksonian Scholars Debate NEIPA

In the imposing Inner Temple of Beer Writers’ Hall in the City of London two scholars sit beneath a vast portrait of the Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson, who died in 2007. They wear Guild robes and are surrounded by leather-bound volumes. A small group of acolytes sits nearby, waiting for the debate to begin. On her throne the Grand Imbiber, who everybody had thought asleep, clears her throat: “What might the Master–” She salutes the portrait of MBHJ, dipping her eyes respectfully. “–have made of this ‘NEIPA’, one wonders?” The scholars reflect for a moment and then open their books, scanning the pages with their fingers.

SCHOLAR #1
The NEIPA, or New England India Pale Ale, is defined by its haziness, is it not? And Jackson wrote, “The possibility of hazy beer is only one of the difficulties encountered when working with newly harvested barley and hops.” [1] If haze is characterised as a difficulty, we can conclude with certainty that NEIPA would displease him.

SCHOLAR #2
No. It is clear that his suggestion here was that haze would be a difficulty for those particular brewers, brewing that particular beer. Did he not also write of Cooper’s, the bottle-conditioned Australian pale ale, “Sparklilng or opaque, It would enliven the most Boycottian innings”? And did he not also call it “a ‘wholefood’ of the beer world”? [2]

SCHOLAR #1
When reading the sacred texts we must always remember the Master’s love of irony. The passage you quote quietly mocks faddish young drinkers and their “more clumsy” pouring technique; it by no means marks approval of their preference. “Generally speaking, sedimented beers…. should be poured without the sediment”, he wrote on another occasion, when asked directly whether yeast should be mixed with beer. [3]

SCHOLAR #2
Again, you treat His words as a blunt tool. Who was more aware of the variations between beer styles, and beer cultures, than Jackson? He did not use the word “generally” carelessly — this was no commandment! He had no objection to cloudy or hazy beer in the right context — approving comments of German and Belgian wheat beers appears abound — but I will concede that a concern is evident in His words when describing the mingling of distinct beer cultures.

SCHOLAR #1
You refer, of course, to his comments on English cask wheat beers? [4]

SCHOLAR #2
Quite so. But he does not condemn or deny, only observes: “Doubt about the willingness of British drinkers to accept cloudy beer remains the biggest worry of brewers making this style.” He does not say that British-style beers ought to be clear, only that they generally are. This might be interpreted as a criticism, especially of older people, set in their ways — “the young, prefer the hazy versions of wheat beer”.

Illustration: Micheal Jackson peers from behind his glasses.

SCHOLAR #1
Or not. He was himself old when this was written and, as I have already pointed out, viewed the crazes of the young with scepticism. I detect nothing in his writing on Young’s Wheat Beer to suggest wholehearted delight and, indeed, detect between-the-lines a lack of faith in the very idea.

SCHOLAR #2
Ah, as so often he presents us with a mirror reflecting our own prejudices. We know, at least, that he believed it was possible for “yeast… to add a little texture, but no bite”. [5]

SCHOLAR #1
Though we are told the haze of an NEIPA is not generally the product of suspended yeast, but hop matter, aren’t we? Appearance aside, what of the flavour? He insisted, always, that India Pale Ale should be “above average in… hop bitterness”, but NEIPAs are characterised by low bitterness. This would have been a black mark against them in his eyes.

SCHOLAR #2
But NEIPA is not IPA. Perhaps he might have questioned the terminology, but that does not mean he would have disputed the right of the style to exist, or disliked the beers that fall within it. He preferred mango lassi to beer with curry, I mention as an aside [6], and once lauded a beer with elderflower essence. [7]

SCHOLAR #1
I contend that he was essentially conservative, nonetheless. When asked to choose his top ten American beers he picked pilsner, dortmunder, imperial stout, Belgian-style beers, steam beer… [8] He pleaded for authenticity in IPA and porter, not reinvention. When what might have been seen as new styles emerged, such as golden ale, he was able to embrace them only by connecting them to the traditions of the past. [9]

SCHOLAR #2
And yet he was among the first to notice and laud the extreme beers of Sam Calagione! [10]

SCHOLAR #1
Laud? Again I detect more interest then admiration in his words — the attitude of an observer at a circus freakshow.

The Grand Imbiber rises from the throne, staff aloft, and the scholars fall silent.

GRAND IMBIBER
I believe we have heard enough. Here is my judgement: there is nothing in his teachings to suggest that NEIPA would displease the Master, and much to suggest that it would have intrigued him. Whether it, or any individual example therein, would have delighted him, we cannot presume to say. Certainly the Master would never have publicly denounced NEIPA, even had he felt it in his heart, for first among his teachings was this: “If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do… If I despise a beer, why find room for it?” [11]

Ashburton Pop: What We Know

Illustration: a cork flies out of a stone bottle.

This lost Devon beer style came to our attention flipping through A Scrapbook of Inns a few weeks ago and we’ve since done a bit more digging. Here’s what we’ve got so far.

The best single description of Ashburton Pop comes from John Cooke, born in Ashburton in 1765, whose autobiographical pamphlet England Forever was published in 1819. We can’t find a copy of the original but fortunately is quoted at length in William Hone’s Table Book from 1827. Cooke wrote:

I recollect its sharp feeding good taste, far richer than the best small beer, more of the champagne taste, and what was termed a good sharp bottle. When you untied and hand-drew the cork it gave a report louder than a pop-gun, to which I attribute its name; its contents would fly up to the ceiling if you did not mind to keep the mouth of the stone bottle into the white quart cup; it filled it with froth, but not over a pint of clear liquor. Three old cronies would sit an afternoon six hours, smoke and drink a dozen bottles, their reckoning bit eight-pence each, and a penny for tobacco. The pop was but twopence a bottle.

A footnote to the 1817 edition of Sir John Sinclair’s The Code of Health confirms that high carbonation was a defining feature:

There is a particular kind of beer brewed at Ashburton in Devonshire, very full of fixed air, and therefore known by the name of Ashburton pop, which is supposed to be as efficacious in consumptions as even the air of Devonshire itself.

For what it’s worth J. Henry Harris speculated in 1907 that “it was probably some concoction intended to rival white-ale”, another famous Devon oddity.

Our attempt at Cornish swanky beer, which we reckon is in the same family.

Ashburton Pop was said to have died out between 1785 (Cooke, via Hone) and 1804, the latter date being given by an 1816 source. Cooke also says that the recipe was lost with the death of the brewer. Later sources mention surviving Ashburton Pop bottles bearing the name of what was probably the brewer, Richard Halse, and dates of 1771 or 1773. It was apparently revived in some form by William Michelmore, landlord of The Royal Oak at Ashburton, no later than 1835. He died in September 1846 aged 68. (Western Times, 12/09/1846.)

In the later 19th century references to Ashburton Pop only turn up in political commentary, like this from the Western Times for 03/06/1881…

Sir Stafford Northcote delivered his long-bottled speech at Manchester on Wednesday…. [He] was primed accordingly; but a more flat and vapid effusion was never poured forth in public than the oration of the Conservative Leader, on Wednesday. “Ashburton Pop” is a brisk potation, taken at the right moment, but a brief exposure to the air takes all the life out of it. Sir Stafford’s “pop” won’t stand the open air of public utterance.

… or this coded satire from the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette from 17/07/1852, signed ‘John Barleycorn’ and addressed to the town’s voters ahead of an upcoming election:

By the bye they say, good ale is drunk at Barnstaple, but his Lordship’s brewery turns out tipple too bitter even for his family circle there, and certainly would not suit the taste of you my friends, accustomed to excellent Ashburton Pop, of which with your permission, I will now drink to our next merry meeting, never ceasing to reiterate the common-sense patriotic principle that “England and every English Interest ought to be protected against the rivalry of the rest of the world.”

Assuming that, even referenced jokingly, these are accurate descriptions of the beer itself, we might gather that it (a) foamed quickly but didn’t retain a head; (b) was sweet rather than bitter; and (c) was to some degree still a topical reference, i.e. still in production as late as 1881, or at least generally remembered.

After this references to Ashburton Pop only appear in the context of historical notes and queries columns, often repeating the Cooke quotation above, and sometimes suggesting that it was a precursor to modern bottled beers.

So, for now, we don’t have much solid advice for those wanting to recreate Ashburton Pop, but as none of the sources mention unusual ingredients, e.g. ginger or raisins, you could probably do worse than this:

  1. Brew something along the lines of a fairly basic golden ale.
  2. Then follow the method for Cornish swanky beer given here: ferment with baker’s yeast; allow a short fermentation in a larger vessel before bottling with corks; when the corks start wanting to escape, after a day or two more, drink it, while it’s fresh.

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.

Session #129: None of Our Beer Styles Are Missing

A pint.

This month’s edition of the Session, hosted by Eoghan at Brussels Beer Cityasks us to consider ‘missing local beer styles’ and for us, still coming to grips with a new city, this has been rather heartening: Bristol has all the beer styles.

First, there are the standards. There are tons of bitters, best bitters and pale-and-hoppies — too many to mention. Brewpub Zero Degrees (of which more in a moment) has a decent pilsner while Lost & Grounded produces a widely available Keller Pils that has just a whiff of craft about it without being scary or weird.

Then there’s the second tier styles. To pick just one example, Moor brews a straight-up cask stout, called Stout, primarily for the Italian market, which we think is just wonderful. Bristol Beer Factory has its Milk Stout which is also bordering on ubiquitous, not only cask and keg in pubs but also bottled in delis, cafes and restaurants. And there are other local milk stouts available. Milk stout!

In fact, here’s a (no doubt incomplete) list of styles currently being produced on a regular basis by breweries in and around Bristol, and fairly easy to find:

  • Barley Wine
  • Black IPA
  • Bock
  • Brown Ale
  • Brown Porter
  • Double IPA
  • Dubbel
  • Dunkelweizen
  • Eighty Shilling
  • Farmhouse ale
  • Gose
  • Imperial stout
  • Kölsch (terms and conditions apply)
  • Kriek
  • Porter
  • Rauchbier
  • Saison
  • Stout
  • Table Beer
  • Tripel
  • Weizen
  • Wit

And remember, that’s just what’s being brewed here — once you get into specialist bars, BrewDog, the flagship Fuller’s pub or Wetherspoon’s, you can probably tick off every other style that might come to mind if you have a particular craving for, say, dubbel or altbier.

If there’s something we’d like to see more of (stuck records that we are) it’s mild, although we’ve managed a few pints of that here and there since arriving in town, too. And, of course, we’re keen for someone to explore Bristol Old Beer. But, really, what do we have to complain about with all that lot listed above to explore?

This post would be quite different if we didn’t live in a city although even Penzance, a short ride from Land’s End, where we lived until the summer, had its own porter, mild, imperial stout…

The point is, if you’re interested in the full range of beer styles — not everyone is — then 2017 is a hell of a time to be alive. It’s just not much of a time to be writing plaintive blog posts about missing beer styles.