I’ve been drinking Marble beers for pretty much as long as they’ve been brewing them. At the moment, the Marble Brewery are producing some of the most interesting, some of the most full-on, some of the hoppiest and some of the most varied beers currently being brewed. One obvious comparison would be newer hop-oriented brewers like Pictish and Abbeydale, but for my money Marble stand apart both by the sheer range of beers they produce and by the extremes of flavour they explore. In those areas Marble are closer to BrewDog, although BrewDog are very unlike Marble, both in aiming squarely for the mass market and in being incorrigible publicity hounds. (Separate BrewDog post to follow. You can’t not write about BrewDog, as much as it feels like you’re playing their game by doing so.)
Anyway, Marble have recently brought out two new bottled beers, both brewed using Westmalle famous yeasts: Westmalle for the “Chocolate dubbel” [sic], Duvel for the “Vuur & vlam”, which is a strong American-style IPA. (“Vuur en vlam”, meaning “fire and flame”, seems to be a common name for some Dutch beers is the name of an IPA from Dutch brewery de Molen; the Marble’s version was brewed originally for a Dutch beer festival, where all participating brewers were invited to compete in offering their own “Vuur en vlam”. The Marble came second overall, beating de Molen’s own into third place; not bad!) (Thanks to John in comments for the corrections.) I was at a tasting of Marble’s last four special bottlings a few months ago – the Special barleywine, a new Decadence stout, and ‘frambozen’ and ‘kriek’ variants on Decadence – and I can heartily recommend all four. The Special was particularly remarkable – a hoppy barleywine, would you believe – but all four were striking, and I ended up spending silly money on a bottle of each. (Separate post on silly money prices to follow.) Disappointingly, the new beers are once again only available in those huge 75cl bottles, although the price seems not to be set as high as the last time round. I’m looking forward to checking them out.
In the mean time, here for the sake of argument are my assembled one-line reviews of Marble beers past and present. For convenience I’ve split them into three categories: the Interesting, the Pleasant and the Superb. (Marble not being BrewDog, I didn’t need the additional categories of Dubious Experiment and Just Being Silly Now.) Re-reading them now, I’m struck by the way that Marble have been able to produce some overwhelmingly good beers well outside their hoppy comfort zone (Decadence, Ginger 6, McKenna’s Revenge), while at the same time taking hoppy beer in some new and different directions. Even as a confirmed malt-lover, I’ve learnt to tell the difference between (say) Dobber and Summer Marble, and started to appreciate all the different flavours that go under the name of ‘hoppy’. (Still prefer the dark ones though.)
A short-run seasonal special, apparently. You know that ‘Manchester pale’ style I keep talking about – lots of hops on top of a dry, yeasty flavour with a sour, almost stale-tasting edge to it? This is that. This is exactly that, done very well. If you like that sort of thing, you would definitely have liked this.
Interesting. Very dry, very hoppy, but with a smoky depth to it; I found I was thinking of this as a tall flavour, if that makes sense. I didn’t actually like it, but if you’re into beers with no discernible malt flavour you should certainly give this one a try.
[Another] Brew 14 (2010)
Yellow, sour, hoppy. Sourly hoppy, in fact – it’s made with Citra hops & as such is quite similar to Pictish’s single-varietal ale. Harsher, though – it’s a full-on hoppy ale, as the Marble’s often are, with a bitter attack in mid-mouth.
Brew 1425 v2
‘Manchester pale’, check; hops, dry yeasty flavour, sour edge to it, check. (Especially on the nose. If they ever put this into production they’ve got to do something about the way this beer smells as you lift it – it’s really not good.) But this is 5.9%, which is very strong for Marble beers, and the strength hits you in a big, heavy, slightly apple-y flavour in the middle of your mouth; essentially, this is Wobbly Marble. Not bad at all, apart from the nose.
This was new, expensive and 5.9%, which makes me think it’s probably a production version of the 1425. If so they’ve fixed the aroma – basically it doesn’t smell slightly off, which has got to be good. But something else has happened to the flavour; the uncompromising bitterness and the Wobbly Bob alcoholic richness have blended in a way they hadn’t before, and the result is, as far as I’m concerned, actively unpleasant. I really didn’t like this one. [Second encounter] On gravity dispense, and very nearly flat, it was “a challenging flavour, but one I could appreciate – and I felt that the relative stillness of the beer gave it an extra weight which complemented the heaviness of the flavour, making it easier to get into”.
Pale, hoppy and sour. I owe the Marble Brewery a bit of an apology. The taste – and smell – of some of their hoppier beers has a distinctive sour edge, which reminds me of stale beer and (not to put too fine a point on it) vomit. I had assumed that this was a sign of something going wrong in the brewing, but not so – at a recent ‘meet the brewer’ event I saw (and smelled) the hops the brewery uses, and one of them has exactly this smell. As does this beer. It takes all sorts.
Summer Marble (2010)
I last tried the Summer Marble a couple of years ago. Then, the bitterness was overpowering – a real clove-oil effect, a bit like a Kölsch – and I found it almost physically hard to drink. This is a much more complex proposition – although once again it’s a full-on beer, and once again it’s hops all the way. There’s a metallic bitterness first of all; get through that and you can taste two distinct hop flavours, the lemony Citra balanced by an uncompromising smoky hit at the back of the mouth. Not the pleasantest beer I’ve ever had, but very interesting.
Tawny (in bottle)
There’s a particular flavour, or combination of flavours, which immediately signals “Manchester pale” to me. You get it at the front of your mouth: a flowery, aromatic quality, combined with a slight sourness. It’s probably a particular kind of hops, or a particular kind of hopping, or something. The Tawny has the back-end qualities you’d expect from a dark bitter (malty body, bitter finish), but the front is all Manchester. Nice enough, but not quite my thing.
Very pale, very hoppy: one of those beers with a full-on hop attack, combining bitterness and that odd sour smokiness. Light, fruity sourness in the body and a clean, easy-drinking finish; it’s all happening at the front of your mouth.
Darker and a bit maltier than the average Marble bitter, but no let-up on the hops. (Why Bee? Honey? The actual beer certainly isn’t sweet.)
Heavy, creamy and distinctly sweet, is the first impression. Lots of hops behind that; a definite metallic bite, with a hoppy finish at the back of the mouth and cloves on the tip of your tongue. Very much in the area Abbeydale have been staking out, but more full-on (as is the Marble’s wont).
A bit of a hostage to fortune, surely? Surprisingly enough, this is a brown, malty bitter, although the malt character doesn’t develop very far before the bitter hop finish slams down on it. Not bad at all.
Back in pre-vegan days, the Marble used occasionally to brew a porter called McKenna’s Revenge, and what a porter it was too – a really distinctive flavour consisting mainly of shovelsful of malt, balanced by just enough bitterness to stop it being cloying. This isn’t that, sadly; more of a ‘dark bitter with stout overtones’ kind of porter. File under ‘perfectly pleasant’.
Mild of the Times
Very dark, not very sweet; if you had this and the Boggart porter in a blind tasting you’d be hard put to identify the mild. The slightly sour flowery front end and the bitter finish are present and correct; in the middle there’s a bit more going on than usual, but it’s not really distinctively mild.
Tawny No. 3
Darkish, malty and strong, with a bit of hop bitterness cutting through and that particular smoky, queasy nose that the Marble’s hops tend to have. (Sorry, I’m just not a fan.) If you like Marble bitters, this is the kind of dark bitter you’ll like.
Tawny No. 4
Not very tawny, as it goes, but a lot browner than the average Marble bitter. A lot of bitterness there, but a lot of flavour too. Not a million miles from the Well Cut mild, but a less aggressive flavour & strength (4.5%). Really very drinkable.
Well Cut mild
A good strong mild is a thing of beauty. (If you like mild, and you like stronger and darker bitters, what’s not to like about a good 6% mild?) But strong mild is also an oddity – almost a contradiction in terms – and a rarity with it; this is only the second example I’ve come across, the other being Sarah Hughes’s Ruby Mild. Well Cut is good, but it’s nowhere near that good; lots of malt and tannic bitterness, but not enough sweetness. Would also lose points, if I were giving points, for playing silly beggars with pricing (see also Decadence) – yes, it’s seasonal and yes, it’s unusually strong, but £3.20 a pint? Give over.
A great big flavour with a definite malty fruitiness and a big thud of alcohol (it’s 6% a.b.v.). Midway between a light-ish mild and an old ale – one hell of a between.
It’s a stout – heavy, bitter, espresso-dark with a tight, creamy head – and then it’s not. More specifically, something strange happens around the middle of your tongue, where the malt and the burnt-grain sourness usually kick in: there’s some of that, but there’s also a big sweet dollop of, well, chocolate. It really shouldn’t work, but it really does. It’d be interesting to compare it directly with Orval, which isn’t a stout but works a similar trick of simultaneously tasting like (a) plain chocolate (b) marmalade and (c) beer.
Decadence stout (2008) (in bottle)
The Marble brewery’s only recently got into bottled beers; most of them are 500ml bottles selling for £2.80, which is a bit steep but worth it for something like the bottle-only 6% Ginger Marble, which is rather fine. Decadence was a late addition to the range: an 8.2% stout sold in a 330ml bottle (with a painted label), for £4.50 a throw. Call me a skinflint, but to my mind £4.50 is a ridiculous amount for a bottle of beer. So the chances are I won’t be getting this again – but I’m very glad I tried it, & I’d recommend anyone who likes beer to try it once. What’s it like? Think of Dragon Stout, then multiply by Guinness Foreign. Think of the deepest, fullest-flavoured Trappist ale you’ve ever had, and add that. It’s the kind of flavour that rushes up to meet you and then keeps on going, enveloping you and then unfolding some more. Ink metaphors are hard to avoid with stout, and what this one reminded me of was the way black ink on wet tissue paper spreads out and unfurls into shades of blue. Shades of malt, in this case; shades of ale. It’s like swimming in beer, or possibly drowning. Really very nice indeed. Still ridiculously over-priced, though.
When the cider’s off and the guest beers both have ‘white’ or ‘silver’ in their names, you can always rely on a Ginger. I used to get Brendan Dobbin’s bottled alcoholic ginger beer sometimes; this isn’t quite up to that standard (that was quite extraordinary) but it’s a very fine pint. Essentially it’s my pet hate, a Manchester-style pale bitter, but with some of the hoppiness and most of the sourness swamped by, well, ginger. (You can actually taste the ginger – it’s not just heat.) Not really a session beer – I had four one evening shortly after it came in, and felt quite peculiar the next morning.
The 6% Ginger Marble, usually only available in bottle. I wasn’t very taken with the bottled version, but this was terrific – all the plus points of the normal Ginger, bedded down on a deep alcoholic richness of flavour. Think of an Abbey-style Triple and you won’t be far off.
It was Christmas Eve a couple of years ago when I went to my local and noticed that they had the Marble Port Stout on. There wasn’t a price for it, so I asked how much it was. They said it was free. That had never happened to me in a pub before, and will probably never happen again. (It was nice, too.) I’ve had the Stouter Stout before and not liked it much. A draught stout is a difficult thing to get right, and in that earlier pint I couldn’t taste much apart from great slabs of inky burnt-grain sourness. (A real aficionado probably doesn’t mix beers, but I have to admit I’m partial to a black and tan, precisely because the bitter hides the sourness of the Guinness. Or rather, the sourness of the bitter and the sourness of the Guinness cancel each other out, somehow – with the right bitter, a black and tan tastes of almost nothing at all.) This one, anyway, was a lot better; the sourness was still there, but well down in the mix. A big, dark, bitter stout – inky in a good (metaphorical) way. As distinct from the earlier one, you understand, which actually tasted of ink.