Brewing at high strengths isn’t easy. Come to that, brewing isn’t easy – I haven’t got the faintest idea how to go about it – but you know what I mean: above about 7%, brewers face problems that aren’t an issue for session-strength beer, and the problems get more intractable as you go up the scale. Go into double figures, particularly with a pale beer, and you’re liable to end up with something that tastes – as I said of the celebrated De Garre tripel – as if somebody’s brewed a strong beer and then poured a glass of tequila into it. Alcoholic heat, alcoholic oiliness, even alcohol flavour – these aren’t things you want to be tasting in a beer.
I’ve tasted three high-strength ‘special brews’ (if you’ll pardon the expression) recently, and I’m sorry to say that two of the three fell right into this trap. The other week I noticed that one of my locals was selling Thornbridge Jaipur X (in bottles), and charging no more than a 50% markup on the retail price – which is to say, they were resisting the temptation to charge £10 for it (which they could probably have got away with). It’s Jaipur, it’s a tenth-anniversary special Jaipur, and it’s a 10% a.b.v. tenth-anniversary special Jaipur. And it tastes as if somebody had opened a bottle of Jaipur and poured a glass of tequila into it. The extra strength adds nothing, I’m afraid – if anything the effect is negative, adding a distracting, woozy note of pure alcohol. You know the first time you tasted Special Brew, and how you noticed it tasted different from ordinary lager? It’s like that; that’s the difference.
Then there was Magic Rock Un-Human Cannonball, an 11% “triple IPA” (whatever that means). (So I’m reading this guy’s blog, and all of a sudden he goes “triple IPA, whatever that means!” Expect he was pissed they wouldn’t serve him a proper British pint. English, what are you gonna do?) I’ve never been crazy about Cannonball, but one thing it does do well – perhaps even a little too well – is to keep the alcohol well hidden; it’s a light, smooth, easy-drinking 7.4% skull-splitter. So I had high, well, fairly high, moderately high, sort of fair-to-middling hopes of the top-of-the-range Un-Human Cannonball. The first thing that struck me was that it was opaque – I mean, completely; chicken soup territory. The last time that happened to me it was an unfined (and badly handled) cask beer which was full of yeast, but presumably that’s not an issue when you’re drinking keg. (Unless it’s real-ale-inna-key-keg, I suppose – topical! – but even then you wouldn’t expect that much yeast, surely.) As for the taste… well, it was OK. It was stronger-flavoured than Cannonball and less balanced – and the comparison made me appreciate both Cannonball and the virtue of balance: the Un-Human version was at once less easy-drinking and less complex. And, once again, there was lots of alcohol going on there – very much as if you’d brewed a strong beer and then poured it into a glass of tequila.
Third time lucky: Marble Brew 900 was a 9% keg beer I ordered without knowing much about it, but having liked the brewery’s barley wine rather a lot. It was light and very drinkable, with a delicate, slightly fruity flavour; in fact, I thought as the bottom of the glass loomed into view, you could call it a tripel and nobody would be any the wiser. On inspecting the tap I discovered that Marble have in fact called it a tripel. A very nice one it is too – and with no alcoholic overtones to speak of.
Marble seem to be on the up at the moment. On the same visit to the Marble Beerhouse I had two cask beers – Antipodean, a newish pale ale with NZ hops, and the relatively well-established Earl Grey IPA. I don’t know if I’ve only just got the point of the Earl Grey IPA or if it’s improved recently; either way I was impressed with it in a way I hadn’t been before. Antipodean was terrific, too – pale ales have been Marble’s forte for a long time, but this didn’t have any of the rough edges they’ve sometimes had in the past. Marble have been coasting for a while – losing some of your best brewers will do that to a brewery – but on this evidence they’re definitely getting back on track.
Update 30/4 I did a bit more drinking last night & can add to both parts of this post. On the Marble front, another hit: Little Meiko is terrific. It’s a strong (7%) IPA, currently available on cask, and it’s got a flavour I can only describe as sproingy. (I mean that literally – if I could think of another word I’d use it. It just is… sproingy. Lots of hops. They kind of go ‘sproing!’.) On the strength front, it very nicely hits the spot between not drinking its weight and actually tasting strong. However, although it plainly is a craft beer, it doesn’t taste of grapefruit; it tastes of yuzu. So now you know.
More to the point, the shocked and horrified responses to the first part of the post (see below) persuaded me that I should give Un-Human Cannonball another go. Here are my tasting notes, as far as I remember them.
“Maybe ‘chicken soup’ was unkind. It’s not that cloudy. I mean, if you hold it up to the light… actually, no, it is that cloudy. It is in fact opaque. What did they put in it?”
“Mmm… OK. It’s true what they say about this one, there is a lot going on. There’s pine, and a kind of punchbowl of tropical fruit, with smoky notes in there too, and a big bitter finish, and it all sort of rolls over you propelled by the alcohol.”
“You can kind of taste the alcohol, though.”
“OK, good. Got it. All I’ve got to do now is drink the rest of the glass.”
“It’s kind of an exhibition beer, this one – you could drink a shot glass of it and you’d get everything, and it’d all be very impressive. But a whole third of a pint is actually going to be a bit of a slog.”
“Third of a pint. If you were out with a friend and he asked if you wanted another, and you had a third of a pint left, you’d just knock it back. If you knocked this one back you’d fall over.”
“It’s like beer but it’s not like beer. It’s like beer from Mars. This is Martian beer.”
And that’s pretty much all I remember.