The Supermarket Beer Project – 1 of 2

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.

This was an interesting project. What struck me more than anything is that IPA doesn’t mean one thing, even among the new wave hop-merchants. Apart from a few beers which seemed to hark back to old-school IPAs (e.g. White Shield), I could distinguish three different styles. The first lot were tropical fruit salad with a bitter undertone and a clean, bitter finish; the second started with a big hit of aromatic hops, turned citric in mid-mouth and then finished on bitterness; the third had a relatively light start and a citric finish, but were dominated by a long hit of bitter hop aroma in mid-mouth. Generally I preferred the second type, but looking at my notes there’s one high-scorer for each of the three, which is rather gratifying.

Update On a recent supermarket visit I realised there was one notable absentee from the list: a certain widely-available IPA from a certain Scottish brewery. I’ve now rectified this omission. It doesn’t come in the top three.

Here are reviews for the top three and the scores on the doors for the rest (full reviews over the fold).

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).

Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (5.9%) 9/10 Lots of citrus fruitiness and an 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 A 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.

Orkney Wayfarer (4.4%) 8/10
Roscoe’s Hop House American India Pale Ale (6.3%) 8/10
St Austell Proper Job (5.5%) 8/10 
BrewDog Punk IPA (5.5%) 7/10
Fuller’s Wild River (4.5%) 7/10 
Maxim American IPA (5.2%) 7/10
Shepherd Neame India Pale Ale (6.1%) 7/10
Brain’s Barry Island IPA (6%) 6/10
Brain’s Boilermaker IPA (6.5%) 6/10
Goose Island India Pale Ale (5.9%) 6/10
Point IPA (5.6%) 6/10
Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2%) 6/10 
Worthington White Shield (5.6%) 6/10
Innis and Gunn Oak-Aged IPA (5.6%) 5/10
Worthington Red Shield (4.2%) 4/10

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.

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.

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.

Fuller’s Wild River (4.5%) 7/10 Not actually an IPA but a “double-hopped pale ale”, although on tasting I thought it was IPA-ish enough to includeThis 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.

BrewDog Punk IPA (5.5%) 7/10 Quite an exciting start – a real buzz of bitter hops on the lips – but it’s not followed through. A fog-banker, despite the bitter start: bitter hops, bitter hops and yet more bitter hops (woodsmoke, tobacco and rather a lot of soap), rounded off by a fairly thin marmaladey citrus finish. Not bad, but not at all special. More precisely, it does have characteristics that make it stand out, but they’re not actually good characteristics (all that soap).

Maxim American IPA (5.2%) 7/10 A big sharp (front-of-)mouthful of citric fruit on the backdrop of a long bitter finish. A bit more complexity than that makes it sound – there’s a bit of that honeyed edge, adding mango to the mix – but still a bit 2D.

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.

Brain’s Boilermaker IPA (6.5%) 6/10 I really liked this on first sniff and mouthful, but it all fell apart as I got further down the bottle (and it wasn’t a big bottle). It’s fruit-forward, and there’s too much fruit there against too little bitterness. The whisky notes aren’t as insistent or as crude as in the Innis and Gunn beer, but they still tend to detract from the flavour of the beer underneath: the finish tastes of whisky rather than having a definite slam of hop bitterness, and the edges of the fruit are rounded by a sweetish whisky undertone.

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2%)>6/10 Citrus start, huge heavy fog-bank of bitterness, citrus finish. And, er, that’s it. If you like drinking clove oil, then… er, why? This beer is very, very big on the bitter hops in mid-mouth, but the word is ‘bitter’ (rather than, say, ‘aromatic’). Just not enough to keep it interesting for me.

Point IPA (5.6%) 6/10 A decent (fruit-forward) beer, but not very interesting. 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.

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. Very much in the fruit-forward 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%.

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.

Innis and Gunn Oak-Aged IPA (5.6%) 5/10 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.

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.

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