In my now-defunct bitter tasting notes, I reviewed Highgate’s Red Rogue as follows:
A ‘red’ bitter is one of my favourite styles, and this was a good one. Not much sourness, but a big hit of tannic bitterness in the middle of your mouth, backed by a good wallop of malt. A big flavour all round.
I seem to have known what I meant by ‘red’ – something big and malty, more sweet than sour, with a bit of IPA-ish bitterness for balance.
These days I’m not so sure. I started wondering after trying Hawkshead Red in the course of a ‘Mild Magic’ pub-crawl: as I said at the time, in the absence of milds in one pub “I settled for a half of Hawkshead Red, assuming from the name that it would at least tick the ‘malty’ box. What I got was a hop bomb – a prickly, aniseedy hop bomb, rather reminiscent of Buxton’s current range.” Then there was Dark Star Carafa Jade, similarly badged up as a ‘red’ ale, and just as full-on if not more so: there is malt there, I guess, but it’s subsumed into this odd sort of exploding-liquorice effect at the front of your mouth. Most confusing of all was BrewDog Hops Kill Nazis, a 7.2% keg beer which I ordered on the naive assumption I was going to get something hoppy and pale. What I got was dark – almost black – and thick in texture; the flavour was intensely sour, to the point where I would have taken it back if it had come out of a cask. Hop bitterness took a back seat, and the kind of smoky hop perfume I anticipated wasn’t there in any strength; instead, there was this sourness, qualified by a big alcohol hit and a syrupy aniseed flavour at the front of the mouth. Checking it out afterwards I discovered that this, too, is marketed as a ‘red’ ale.
So is that what ‘red’ means these days – aniseed, liquorice, dark but prickly? Where did it come from – is this the malt revival I used to dream of, only filtered through (as it were) a mouthful of hops? Alternatively, are brewers actually aiming for the style of the old ‘red’ bitters but missing, possibly because they just can’t resist hopping them to the max? What is up with the sourness of that BrewDog thing – are they going for the ‘red’ of Flemish ‘red ales’ (e.g. Rodenbach)? And what on earth is a double imperial red beer? Questions, questions.
Update Just to confuse matters, Lancaster Red turns out to be exactly what I used to think a ‘red’ bitter was like: a big brown malty bitter, with not much going on on the hop aroma front, but with enough character to dispel any suspicion of boringness. The meaning of ‘red’ is becoming still more obscure.
PS XTC, second album, last track on side one. Very under-rated album.