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.

The Great Porter Flood of 2017

At some point in the last year a memo must have gone round all the traditional-regional-family brewers: let’s brew porter!

So far this year we’ve noticed new ones from:

And that’s before we get into debatable cases such as the revived Truman’s which has a vanilla porter in development.

Have we missed any others?

We’d guess this has been enabled by the trend for small pilot plants which enable large breweries, otherwise equipped to turn out tankerloads of one or two flagship beers, to produce styles with less mainstream appeal on the side. For a long time this was often cited as the reason for the lack of dark beers — they don’t sell enough to warrant a full brew — so this might also bode well for other marginal styles such as mild.

We’re also firmly of the view that porter is a more dignified way of meeting the current demand for novelty and variety than disappointing cod-American IPAs, or beers that are supposed to taste of Tequila.

Whatever the reasons and motives we’d be quite happy if October-December became a sort of semi-official porter season across the country. Imagine knowing that you could walk into almost any halfway decent pub and find porter on draught — imagine!

The Mainstreaming of Grapefruit Beer

Grapefruit from a 1953 US government publication.

Back in 2013 the idea of putting actual grapefruit into beer seemed quite hilarious — a stunt, a play on the grapefruit character of certain hop varieties.

But somehow, probably because it filled a gap in the market between alcopop and Serious Beer, it stuck and became a craft beer staple. (Definition 2.) Now it’s even made its way out of that walled community so that in 2017 it seems easier to get a grapefruit beer than a pint of mild.

BrewDog Elvis Juice, a grapefruit boosted IPA first launched in 2016, is in almost every supermarket in the land — even the funny little ones that otherwise only sell bog roll and sandwiches — at less than £2 a bottle. We weren’t sure if we liked it at first — “Eugh! It’s like someone’s put a splash of Robinson’s squash in it.” — but somehow it keeps ending up in the fridge, and keeps getting drunk. It’s got a palate cleansing quality, or perhaps palate defibrillating would be more accurate, and there’s just something fun about it. That the base IPA is good in its own right doesn’t hurt.

Adnams/M&S grapefruit IPA
SOURCE: M&S website

Out in West Cornwall we didn’t have easy access to Marks & Spencer so missed out on some of the fun of their revitalised beer range. Here in Bristol it’s much easier to grab the odd can or bottle while we’re out and about which is how we came to try the Grapefruit session IPA brewed for them by Adnams and available at £2 for 330ml, or less as part of multibuy offers. Would we have identified it as an Adnams beer if we’d tasted it blind? Probably not, but it does have some of their signature funk. It’s not thrilling or brainbending, just a decent pale ale with a twist. We’d probably rather drink Ghost Ship but perhaps, as with Elvis Juice, we just need to get to know it a little better.

Theakston Pink Grapefruit Ale
SOURCE: Theakston website.

And, finally, the one that really surprised us: the latest Wetherspoon’s ale festival includes a pink grapefruit ale from, of all breweries, Theakston. It is perhaps the most exciting Theakston beer we’ve ever had, a classic northern pale-n-hoppy whose tropical fruitiness is like the bold lining on a classically tailored jacket, glimpsed in passing rather than right upfront. But, after the fact, we discovered something funny: unless we’re missing a detail in the small print, despite the word grapefruit in the name and pictures of them on the pumpclip, this effect is achieved entirely with… hops. A relatively new, obscure variety called Sussex, according to the Theakston website.

Does all this take us nearer to Craftmaggedon, when the last of the cask Best Bitters shall be cast into the pit and we will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored? Or is just another variable for brewers to play with? It’s the latter, obviously. The beers above stand out in the context of Wetherspoon pubs or supermarket shelves but still represent only the very tiniest proportion of products on the market.

Session #125: Single Malt, Single Hop

Cascade Express -- hop-themed boarding card.

Mark Lindner at By the Barrel has asked us to consider so-called SMaSH beers — that is, those made using one variety of malt and one variety of hops.

We were going to give this a miss because we couldn’t think of any such beer we’d drunk in recent years, or at least not any that made a virtue of their SMaSH status and proclaimed it at point of sale.

(St Austell did release a series of SMaSH beers a couple of years ago but unfortunately, like so many of the more interesting products of our (not for much longer) local giant they proved impossible to actually find on sale in any of the pubs we visited at the time.)

But then we began to wonder… How many quite commonly found beers are SMaSH beers even if they don’t declare it?

Rooster’s Yankee, for example — a beer we wrote about at length in Brew Britannia and have often touched on elsewhere — is (as far as we can tell) made with 100 per cent Golden Promise malt and 100 per cent Cascade hops. And we believe (evidenced corrections welcome) that Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, another long-time favourite of ours, is made using 100 per cent English lager malt and 100 per cent, er, Brewer’s Gold hops.

You might say, in fact, that the pale-n-hoppy UK cask ale sub-style is often SMaSH by default. Sean Franklin, the founder of Rooster’s, has long championed the idea of using 100 per cent pale malt to provide the cleanest possible background for hops to express themselves, and that’s certainly approximately how most of the best examples of HLA seem to be engineered. Perhaps there’s some wheat in there (see Jarl) or a dab of something like Munich malt just to round it out a little but, generally, Franklinian simplicity seems to be the preferred route.

So, what other examples of Stealth SMaSH are out there in UK pubs?

And does anyone know, for example, if Oakham Citra might be a SMaSH beer? Online homebrew forums are full of guessed recipes (guesscipes…) but we can’t find authoritative information. Our guess is, yes, in which case, it turns out we’ve drunk tons of SMaSH beer after all.