I drink a fair amount of bottled beer, almost all of which I buy from supermarkets along with the weekly shop. The other day I noticed that almost all of the beers under the stairs were of one of two styles, and I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast.
Hence the project, or part 1 of it. The rules are simple.
1. When drinking bottled beer at home, I’ll drink nothing but IPA until the IPAs have run out.
2. I’ll drink them in ascending strength order, unless new purchases make it impossible or it seems like a good idea to take one out of order.
3. I’ll rate each one after drinking, or in any case before drinking the next one.
Here are the ratings:
Orkney Wayfarer (4.4%) 8/10 A Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt discovery (for me), and a terrific start to part 1. A very hoppy start – herby, smokey, citrus-y flavours bouncing about the place – settling down to a clean, light flavour mid-mouth before a really big bitter finish. More bright and zingy than a lot of IPAs – none of that heavy “builder’s tea and a fag” flavour that a lot of them have – and none the worse for it.
Fuller’s Wild River (4.5%) 7/10 Breaking the rules already, this isn’t an IPA but a “double-hopped pale ale”. On tasting I thought it was IPA-ish enough to include; we’ll see if that impression is borne out by further comparisons. Certainly it didn’t taste much like the previous beer: this is a beer of two halves, a light, citric golden ale overshadowed by a kind of fog bank of tobacco bitterness. Some bitterness in the finish, but it’s that mid-mouth cloud of bitter hop aroma that really hits you. “Builder’s tea and a fag”, indeed, and then some.
Harbour IPA (5.2%) 9/10 Presumably this is a craft beer; it certainly tasted of grapefruit. That doesn’t begin to do justice to the flavour, though – a buzz of bitterness on the lips giving way to a rich, floral, fruity bundle of flavours on a bitter ground. Bottle-conditioned, and seemed to reveal more the more I drank; by the end I was detecting banana and mango notes and even some honey (the flavour of honey, the bit that’s not just sweetness). Very much the American IPA style, and the kind of beer that reminds you why people go overboard for it.
Point IPA (5.6%) 6/10 An American IPA, no less – from Stevens Point WI to the local Morrison’s, and in the standard 355 ml size (which is to say, 3/4 of a US pint, or 5/8 of an Imperial one). Just about the least interesting beer so far. Perfectly pleasant, and I wouldn’t even call it one-dimensional: the jangle of citric fruit mid-mouth against the long bitter finish made for a very nice drink. But compared to the Harbour, in particular, it was just a bit… two-dimensional.
Maxim American IPA (5.2%) 7/10 Very much in the same region as the previous one; a big sharp (front-of-)mouthful of citric fruit on the backdrop of a long bitter finish. A bit more complex – there’s a bit of that honeyed edge, adding mango to the mix – but still a bit 2D.
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (5.9%) 9/10 Now this is a bit special. Very much the same ingredients as the last couple in terms of the flavour palette – the citrus fruitiness, the uncompromising bitterness – but it all hits together, making a genuinely complex (and balanced) blend of flavours. Some surprisingly subtle flavour notes in there, mostly at the bitter end of the spectrum rather than the fruit-salad end: a wisp of tobacco smoke here, a touch of cloves there. Very nice indeed.
Shipyard IPA (5.1%) 9/10 Another keeper. So far the IPAs have fallen into two main groups: “fruit salad frenzy on a bitter background” (Harbour, Point, Maxim) and “multi-directional hop explosion settling down to a bitter finish” (Orkney, Bengal Lancer). This one is in a third group, along with the Wild River: we’re back with the smoky fog bank of bitterness, with hardly any citrus to cut through it. But what a fog bank. I kept being reminded of expensive soap – the enveloping perfumes (part-floral, part-herbal), the bitter tang on your lips… Lovely stuff. Shipyard have ties with Ringwood; I’m not sure which way the influences run, but an apple certainly hasn’t fallen far from a tree.
St Austell Proper Job (5.5%) 8/10 Nice to find this one on the shelf (in Tesco); mostly I only see Tribute. This is another ‘hop explosion’ IPA, but not quite as full-on as the Bengal Lancer. Very much Bengal Lancer’s little brother, really; a bit tighter, less omni-directional. Immediate bitter attack, lots of shades of hoppy bitterness on a citrus-y background, fading to a really big bitter finish. I remember this being a seriously refreshing beer on cask, and it’s almost as good in bottle.
Worthington White Shield (5.6%) 6/10 I’ve had White Shield before and enjoyed it, but it didn’t occur to me to include it in this list until I read the label: “Our finest India Pale Ale. For true IPA connoisseurs.” There you go, then. On tasting it my first impression was of a flavour I hadn’t tasted in years – this is what IPAs used to taste like! So there’s bitterness – a lot of bitterness, more than you normally get in a best bitter, and it hits in mid-mouth. But there’s a big, malty body as well, pushing the hop aromas (there are some) to the very edge of the picture, and building over the length of the bottle to a sweetness that verges on the cloying. Pleasantly complex and well-rounded, but much sweeter and more malty than we’d expect these days.
Worthington Red Shield (4.2%) 4/10 Oh dear. I bought this out of curiosity and because it was cheap; I certainly don’t class it as an IPA, and I wouldn’t have included it here but for the note on the label that says it was inspired by lighter tasting versions of more traditional IPA. So what’s it like? Not very nice, if I’m honest. It’s light, all right; it’s a fairly fruity light ale, with a big slug of malty sweetness added on. Presumably this is the connection with White Shield. It’s pale, but it’s not particularly bitter, and it’s definitely not hoppy.
Innis and Gunn Oak-Aged IPA (5.6%) 5/10 This evening isn’t getting much better. Perhaps a bit less unpleasant than the Red Shield. A light, fruity pale ale, with some bitterness on the finish – although it’s a burnt-wood-flavoured, whisky-tinged bitterness, so presumably what I was tasting was oak. It certainly wasn’t hops. I bought an Innis and Gunn beer years ago, when they first hit the market; I thought then that if I wanted to taste whisky barrels I’d drink whisky. Not impressed.
Goose Island India Pale Ale (5.9%) 6/10 Another fog-banker: the bitterness hits first of all, then builds to total dominance in mid-mouth before dropping away almost entirely to leave a sweetish fruity finish. Overall, the flavour is all about that heavy cloud of hop aroma: pungent and astringent, smoky bordering on soapy, and asking for adjectives like ‘astringent’. The finish is odd, though; less fruit and more bitterness would have been welcome.
Brain’s Barry Island IPA (6%) 6/10 I hate to mark this so low – it had an interesting and distinctive flavour. It just wasn’t very successful. Quick recap: setting aside outliers like White Shield, so far I’ve identified three main groups of IPAs. The first group are tropical fruit salad with a bitter undertone and a clean, bitter finish; the second start with aromatic hops, turn citric in mid-mouth and then finish on bitterness; the third has a long hit of bitter hop aroma in mid-mouth, with a relatively light finish. This was very much in the first group, except that the fruit salad was thin and lacking in sweetness – the flavour reminded me of orange segments that have been left to soak in water – and the bitter finish was more woody than hoppy. My overriding impression was thinness: it tasted like a watered-down version of a stronger beer, which is particularly odd given the ABV of 6%.
Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale (6.1%) 7/10 One of Sheps’ brown-bottled revivals, and not bad at all. This is IPA style 1, front-loading the fruit and finishing with some serious bitterness. What’s interesting is that there’s a malty body to it as well, mellowing the edge of the bitterness and adding a slight sweetness that develops as you get down the bottle. It’s the missing link between Harbour and White Shield, in other words. Assuming Sheps’ revivalism is accurate, perhaps this is what IPAs used to taste like.
Roscoe’s Hop House American India Pale Ale (6.3%) 8/10 Another Tesco import, and really rather fine. Fruit first: peach, mango, perhaps even banana. (No grapefruit, though; it’s sweeter than it’s sharp.) Then a really big, business-like bitterness to finish on. In fact ‘business-like’ is how I’d describe the flavour overall, although not in a bad way: it sets out to impress, doesn’t mess about and gets the job done. The word ‘bazinga!’ crossed my mind.