Gary: So tell me more.
Barman: About what?
Gary: Crowning Glory. Is it nutty? Is it foamy? Is it hoppy? Does it have a surprisingly fruity note which lingers on the tongue?
Barman: It’s beer.
Gary: We’ll have five of those, please.
The story so far: a company called Brewhive, who appeared to be setting up as an online provider of craft beer, got in touch asking if I wanted to review their stuff. For more detail see the previous post. Or just read on…
I wrote back to Brewhive, saying I’d like to try their beers, on a Wednesday night; the beer arrived on the Friday morning. This was impressive. I’d expressed interest in the cider as well as the beers. The box – apparently a feat of cardboard engineering designed to minimise breakages – contained six bottles, a bottle opener and a delivery note listing two bottles each of the beers plus one of the cider. This would have been an enterprising use of a six-bottle crate; in fact there was one each of the cider and the lager, and two of the others. Here, without any editorialising, is the label copy.
“My English Endeavour hops give me a grapefruit & lime note & crystal malt adds caramel flavour.”
[last bit in a speech bubble ‘spoken’ by a stylised hop cone]
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 11 deg C
TALKING POINTS: The English Endeavour hop has a robust flavour and satisfying bitterness
TASTING NOTES: Hints of lime, grapefruit & caramel
CHARACTER: Medium bodied, fruity and well rounded
COMPLEMENTS: Chicken, fish, salads
ALC 4% VOL
Hints of… no, I said no editorialising. Bad blogger. Next up:
“My American Summit hops infuse with rich chocolate malt & hints of vanilla, liquorice & caramel.”
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 13 deg C
TALKING POINTS: The English chocolate malt is kilned at a high temperature giving extra richness to this traditional porter
TASTING NOTES: Distinctive liquorice taste with notes of vanilla & caramel
CHARACTER: Strong roasted
COMPLEMENTS: Roasts, game, cheeses
ALC 4.1% VOL
“My German Magnum hops create a refreshingly smooth Pilsner with a malty sweet and subtly bitter finish.”
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 8 deg C
TALKING POINTS: The German Magnum hop is bold yet mild with a clean bittering quality
TASTING NOTES: Citrus and spice top notes with an undercurrent of hop-infused flavour
CHARACTER: Well balanced with a distinctive grainy bite
COMPLEMENTS: Spicy food, BBQ’s and snacks
ALC 4% VOL
And we might as well do the full set.
“My crisp, sweet apples are gently infused with a hint of sparkle to create a refreshing lightness & taste.”
I LIKE TO BE SERVED: At 10 deg C
TALKING POINTS: Golden cider carefully brewed from a variety of succulent apples
TASTING NOTES: A refreshing, fruity cider with crisp apple top notes and a clean finish.
CHARACTER: Well balanced sweetness with a hint of dryness
COMPLEMENTS: Chicken, pork & bacon
ALC 5% VOL
It’s hard to know where to start. I’ll deal with the cider label first, because it’s particularly awful – a ‘fruity’ cider with ‘apple top notes’? A cider that’s been ‘carefully brewed’ (you don’t brew cider) from ‘a variety of succulent apples’? ‘Well balanced sweetness with a hint of dryness’? This isn’t quite at the level where you genuinely suspect it’s been written by a bot, but it’s alarmingly close. It conveys no information at all, while running up all the ‘style’ flags it can find. It reads as if it’s been written by somebody who’s read a food magazine from cover to cover and then, well, looked at a bottle of cider.
As for the beers – are they nutty? are they hoppy? do they have a surprisingly fruity note which lingers on the tongue? No, but they have ‘notes’ – grapefruit and lime, vanilla and caramel, citrus and spice; one of them has ‘hints’ (grapefruit, lime and caramel), one has an ‘undercurrent’ (hop-infused flavour) and a distinctive grainy ‘bite’, while the third rather disappointingly has a liquorice ‘taste’. It all seems nice and foodie (drinkie?), it’s just that the words are wrong. Caramel notes come from the malt and are generally avoided, or even looked down on, in the hop-chasing fraternity; it’s very odd to boast about the caramel, never mind putting it in with the hop fruit salad. As for the porter, it’s brewed with Summit, a hop noted for “pungent, spicy citrus flavors bordering on the savory”; anything less likely to give ‘notes of vanilla & caramel’ is hard to imagine. (Unless they meant salted caramel?) A ‘hop-infused flavour’ basically means nothing, as does ‘bold yet mild’; ‘bittering’ refers to how you use the hops, not what they taste like; ‘hops infuse with chocolate malt’ isn’t even grammatical. The lager is described as bitter, ‘malty sweet’, citrussy, spicy, grainy and clean-tasting, which would be quite a trick. And so on. Like the dialogue from World’s End I quoted at the top, these labels seem to have been written by someone who knows what beer-speak sounds like but doesn’t actually know beer.
Now to actually taste the beer. Place your bets…
I’ll start with this one because I don’t want to be relentlessly negative, and this was reasonably nice. I drank it after getting back from Germany, and even then I didn’t think the ‘German lager’ designation was miles out – it had a dry, flinty quality which reminded me quite pleasantly of a half-decent mass-produced pilsner. There was a bit of a fresh, citrussy front-of-mouth attack going on as well, which got more obtrusive as you got through the bottle, and which I thought didn’t really belong – it was more like a taste you’d get in an old-school bitter than a lager. Still, it went down very easily. Don’t get me wrong, half-decent mass-produced pilsners which are actually from Germany and the Czech Republic are widely available, and there’s no way I’d advise anyone to take this over the real thing – a PU or even a Bitburger would knock spots off this. But if it was this or a supermarket own-brand bottled lager – a St Cervois, say, or a Bière des Moulins – the Blonde Brew would win every time.
But I’m afraid that’s about as good as it’s going to get.
I drank this one first, and it came as something of a shock. Never mind ‘pale brew’, in the glass it looked like Irn Bru: tawny orange, heavily carbonated, limpidly clear. There’s a certain kind of carbonation where the bubbles don’t seem to be precipitating out of CO2 in solution but just look as if they were sitting there all along, having been introduced into an inert liquid. My chemistry’s probably all wrong, but that’s very much what it looked like. Fortunately it didn’t taste like Irn Bru; unfortunately it didn’t taste like IPA, either. It tasted like keg bitter, or canned keg bitter; it tasted like the ‘brown bitter’ equivalent of a St Cervois or a Bière des Moulins. There was a light, citrussy attack, a bit of malty sweetness in mid-mouth and the ghost of a bitter finish; and, er, that’s it – no complexity, no development. The first time I tasted keg bitter – some time in the late 1970s – I thought of Sodastream machines, and of somebody making a fizzy drink with a ‘beer’ syrup; that’s what it reminded me of. It was dreadful. (The second bottle was a bit better, but only because I knew what to expect.)
This was a bland, sweet porter with a definite chocolate flavour and very little bitterness, ‘strong roasted’ or otherwise. In fact it was fairly light-bodied and thin-tasting. This wasn’t just because of its low strength; there was also a distinct (and familiar) citrussy lightness of flavour in the front of the mouth. By the bottom of the glass it almost felt as if I’d been drinking two different beers – a dark mild and a bog-standard brown bitter, possibly on keg. Certainly not as bad as the Pale Brew, but it did show a definite family likeness, and not in a good way.
For completeness’ sake I had a taste of this, but gave the bottle to the family’s resident cider fan. For what it’s worth, it was the most heavily carbonated thing I’ve poured in a long time: by the time I’d carried the glass from one room to another the back of my hand was soaking wet. Impressions? If the Pale Brew took me back to the late 1970s, this took me back even further – to Woodpecker cider, which I thought was very adult and sophisticated when I was twelve. (I remember feeling I’d really grown up when I graduated to Strongbow.) ‘Well balanced sweetness with a hint of dryness’ is about right: I got sweetness balanced with more sweetness, followed by… nothing: where most ciders have a finish, an aftertaste or both, this one just sort of stopped.
I hate to bite the hand that feeds and so on, but I’m a reviewer, not an copywriter. I like the idea of making a business out of selling a limited range of beers online and doing it well – and the Web site is pretty nice. But the beers (and the cider) were just not very good: on a scale of 1 to 10 I’d give the lager 4, the porter 3 and the other two 1.
So what’s going on here? How does somebody put so much work in to get all the elements right – the ordering, the fulfilment chain, the packaging, the Web site, the blog, the pitch to leading social media opinion-formers (hem hem) – and get the actual beer so wrong?
More about this in the next post, and a bit more about Brewhive the company.